National Editor Tom Karst
National Editor Tom Karst

The fresh produce industry needs you, Mrs. Obama.

As the third anniversary of the Let’s Move campaign (Feb. 9) came and went without much fanfare, some have suggested First Lady Michelle Obama was retreating from her post as America’s top veggie advocate. The first lady had been quiet for some time now, after all. But the silence will be short-lived. The first lady is scheduled to speak March 8 at a meeting of the Partnership for a Healthy America.

What’s more, she just penned an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal titled “The Business Case for Healthier Food Options.”

Michelle is back.

The collective “we” - growers, shippers, wholesalers, retailers, the random trade journalist, etc. - may not like Obamacare, the Environmental Protection Agency or new food safety regulations. But the produce industry will never tire of seeing First Lady Michelle Obama speaking up for broccoli and spinach. Never, ever, stop talking about healthy foods, Michelle. Never mind about us; it’s about the kids.



In other friendly developments, watch for the USDA’s evaluation of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program by mid-March. The report should be good news for advocates of the program.

Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for the United Fresh Produce Association, said the 2008 farm bill included $3 million for an evaluation of the effectiveness of the program. The USDA gave the contract to ABT Associates but their report is yet to be released.

Also, big kudos to the upsized effort to bring hundreds of salad bars to California schools. The planned United Fresh media event May 15 at the San Diego convention center to announce the donation of record numbers of salad bars (more than 300 and rising) is another bookmark in what has been an incredible ongoing campaign for the entire industry.



 In my Feb. 20 conversation in Washington with industry lobbyists, one said the month of March is going to be “horrible” because of the uncertainty of sequestration cuts. While Congress could sort through budget issues with a March 27 deadline for a continuing resolution, some measure of cuts are coming. Lobbying work is hard because every program and priority is under the shadow of sequester cuts.

How will the farm bill cuts be decided on? Will traditional farm subsidies take the hit, or will it be shared by all farm bill programs?

The annual meetings of the School Nutrition Association, the Food Research and Action Center and the National WIC Association will keep nutrition issues will take front and center in Washington D.C. through mid-March, just as sequestration may be starting to exert its effect.

Sequestration has a potential to wreak havoc on the lives of “everyday” Americans, but God forbid if the automatic budget cuts cause delays in air travel.

I kid, of course. But I think most middle to upper class Americans, especially Republicans (which I count myself), are somewhat curious if not anxious to see the cuts happen. Though most of can’t quote chapter and verse about the red ink that the Obama Administration has accumulated (has it been $2 trillion or $4 trillion added to the national debt?) we have in our minds that “something must be done.”

In our minds eye, we can see the fast changing digital numbers of America’s national debt clock. Anything to make that stop, please.

Other than slowing the national debt clock, can any good come from sequester? Not for the hundreds of thousands of folks that will be denied WIC food benefits. WIC is the only nutrition program that is not protected from sequester cuts.

Meanwhile, the Food Research and Action Center has released a new report  that claims one in six Americans (18.2%) reported there had been times in the past 12 months they didn’t have enough money to buy food that their families needed. That rate was unchanged from rates in 2011, the group said.

The report found one in four household in Mississippi reported food hardship, and 42 states had rates of 15% or more.

“Despite weaknesses in wages and employment, some in Congress continue to pursue cuts that would further fray our nation’s nutrition safety net,” FRAC President Jim Weill said in the release. “Last year, Congress proposed billions in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). Today, it is poised to further harm low-income programs, including WIC and other nutrition programs, with its failure to resolve self-imposed fiscal crises. And Congress has made no attempt to forestall the scheduled November 2013 cut in SNAP benefits.”

Yes, but what about the airport delays? Unfortunately, perhaps, the pain inflicted on suburban households from sequester cuts is the only pain that matters.