Nation & World

Nuts, dried fruits cut from school snack program

WASHINGTON — Congress dissed California dried fruits and nuts in the latest farm bill, and growers are feeling ambushed.

In a last-minute maneuver that is only now coming to light, farm bill authors cut out dried fruits and nuts from an ambitious school snack program. The action could slam the door on some potentially lucrative markets.

"This is a real problem with the bill, excluding an entire industry," said Dan Haley, a lobbyist for California specialty crops.

It also illustrates how Capitol Hill works, sometimes in the dead of night.

Congress in June overcame President Bush's veto to overwhelmingly approve the new five-year farm bill. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the package of subsidies, food stamps, conservation programs and more will cost upward of $307 billion.

The bill includes record spending for the fruit, vegetable and nut industries that banded together as a specialty crop alliance. Notably, the new farm bill expanded an existing fresh fruit and vegetable snack program previously limited to 14 states.

Starting Oct. 1, selected schools in all 50 states will be able to partake in the fresh fruit and vegetable snack program. The new farm bill adds some $500 million for the purchases over the next five years.

"There was a general assumption that nuts and dried fruits would be included in this program; they are considered to be healthy," noted Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.

Californians reckoned on multiple benefits. Specialty crop producers would gain new customers. Berries, bananas, apples and grapes were among the most popular fruits purchased in previous years. Carrots, celery and broccoli were the most popular vegetables, the Agriculture Department reported.

Students, in turn, are supposed to eat healthier. The new snack grants will emphasize schools with a high proportion of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

For instance, 94 percent of the students at Fresno's Olmos Elementary School are eligible for free or reduced-priced meals, state records show. Similarly, 88 percent of the students in Merced's Franklin Elementary School and 98 percent at Modesto's Bret Harte Elementary School are eligible. These epitomize the type of schools targeted by the expanded snack program, although states are still selecting which schools will get grants.

"Students look forward to the fruits and vegetables offered, and are starting to think more about a healthy diet," the Agriculture Department declared last year.

But after Congress finished the farm bill, apparently, California lawmakers realized the bill and an accompanying 423-page report had been adjusted. In part, this so-called report language limited the reach of the fresh snack program.

"It is not the intent of the (bill's) managers to allow this program to provide other products, such as nuts, either on their own or co-mingled with other foods, such as in a trail mix," the bill report states.

Haley, whose clients include the nut-growing cooperative Diamond of California, said the provision was included "when no one was looking." Senate staffers are thought to have been primarily responsible, California Farm Bureau Federation national affairs director Jack King indicated Monday.

"It caught us all by surprise," King said.

Separately, the bill language itself was tweaked to omit dried fruits from the fresh fruit and vegetable snack provision. Until now, dried fruits like raisins, prunes and figs have been acceptable snack components. But under a strict interpretation of the bill, omission of a reference to dried fruits means they can no longer be purchased for the snack program.

Costa, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, said last week he hadn't heard anything about it, and Haley said other California lawmakers were likewise left in the dark. The Californians could fight back in September, when Congress returns; a spokeswoman for the Senate agriculture panel could not be reached Monday.