While the economy appears to be entering a period of recovery, government is facing a new period of austerity.

The last of government’s big time spenders

Tom Karst
National Editor

Scores of Republicans have swept into office with the mantra of being tough on the federal deficit. The GOP infusion will tighten the purse strings of the federal treasury.

Someone described a budget once as “a mathematical confirmation of your suspicions.”

In the case of the federal government, Americans suspect we can’t afford our current level of spending and the ever deeper river of red ink that is flowing from Washington, D.C.

This is true, of course. Bowing to this reality, vote-hungry politicians have at least publically vowed their dedication to drive down the deficit.

This has implications for the fruit and vegetable sector, which ironically has long argued for greater federal support of specialty crop priorities and lately has had success in winning appropriations for specialty crop block grants, inclusion of vouchers for fruits and vegetables in the Women, Infant and Children’s program, expansion of the fresh fruit and vegetable snack program and strong funding for the Market Access Program for export promotion.

And there is more besides.

School lunches

Industry advocates have reason to be encouraged with the passage of child nutrition reauthorization by the House and the Senate.

The legislation will increase the number of children in the school lunch program by 115,000 and boost the federal reimbursement for school lunches by six cents per meal — the first real increase in the rate in 30 years.

That moderate increase should allow for more fruits and vegetable in lunches and eventually bring school food in compliance with dietary guidelines.

The legislation will also remove junk food from schools by applying nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools.

Keeping this in place over the next two to four years will be difficult. It doesn’t really matter that program crop growers have received billions more while perhaps deserving it less than specialty crop growers.

MAP has already been singled out for reduction by President Obama’s deficit commission, and Republican lawmakers are certain to scrutinize other programs.

In fact, the newly passed child nutrition reauthorization was being panned by critics who said it aimed for “nanny state” control of cupcakes sold at school bake sales.

No more cupcakes?

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack went so far as to put out a letter to Congress to refute some of the misinformation about the legislation that was published in an Associated Press article.

Vilsack wrote:

“The congressional intent is clear that the purpose of Section 208 in the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act is to upgrade the nutritional quality of certain foods sold in schools outside of the school meal programs. As such, USDA would use this authority to propose nutrition standards through the regulatory process, which will allow for public comment by school administrators and all other interested parties.

“However, USDA agrees with and respects the intent of Congress to permit exemptions for school approved fundraisers — including bake sales or other occasional or infrequent fundraisers.

“With respect to concessions at sporting events, depending on the particular school schedule, the majority of these events would likely fall outside of the school day, and thus beyond the authority granted by the bill. Again, USDA has no intention of going further than the congressional directive on this issue.”

So cupcakes at bake sales are safe, but the “nanny state” is still under attack.

We are in the beginning stages of a Republican era. Washington, D.C., will soon become a withering and unforgiving environment for new or expanded federal funding.

Wins — if by wins we mean bigger budgets for industry priorities — will be few and far between. Keeping what the industry has got will be enough of a challenge.

It is true that fruits and vegetables remain well-positioned from a science and health perspective.

So long as the federal treasury is untouched, it will be difficult for even fiscal conservatives be critical of efforts to expand consumption of fresh produce.

It may be time for industry advocates to look inward to devise a new strategy going forward.

As Reagan said, government won’t be the solution in the next few years. It will be the problem.

E-mail tkarst@thepacker.com

What effect do you think tighter government budgets will have on the industry? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.