From ‘fresh’ fruit to just fruit in farm bill

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 5, 2012 

— Weeding out one little word from a farm bill might mean real money for raisin growers and other purveyors of dried fruit.

But a wording change that expands a federal fruit and vegetable program to include dried, canned and frozen foods also could sour key lawmakers and spark a Capitol Hill fight. The conflict adds one more challenge for a Congress struggling to finish its farm bill work this year.

“It’s going to be a battle royale,” predicted Dan Haley, a lobbyist for Sun-Maid Growers and other California specialty crop clients.

Many such complications come together next Wednesday, when the House Agriculture Committee is expected to take up its newly released 557-page farm bill proposal. The package setting agricultural policy for the next five years markedly differs from a Senate version approved late last month.

The House bill, for instance, makes far more dramatic cuts in food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. While both House and Senate bills would substitute insurance for direct payments to growers of commodities such as cotton, rice and wheat, the House also would set target prices as a subsidy option more attractive to Southern farmers. The Senate bill would set tighter income limits governing who can receive federal payments.

“There are differences of opinion, and we’ll have to work our way through that,” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, said Friday.

For specialty crops, the wine, fruits, nuts and vegetables so dominant in California’s $38 billion-a-year agricultural industry, the two bills generally coincide. But there are differences.

The Senate bill, notably, retains a Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program in its current form. The bill would allocate $1 billion over 10 years for states to buy healthy snacks to serve low-income children in elementary schools. California, for instance, received $10.8 million for the snack program last year.

The House bill would keep the program, but drops the word “fresh.” Technically, the effect is to make dried fruit and canned and frozen fruits and vegetables also eligible for purchase. Politically, the change mobilizes competing forces.

“We strongly oppose any provision that opens the (program) to all forms,” said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of the United Fresh Produce Association.

Here’s where it gets tricky.

Guenther elaborated that the United Fresh Produce Association supports expanding the fruit and vegetable program to include dried fruit but not canned or frozen foods. Dried fruit had been eligible until lawmakers changed the rules in 2008. Guenther’s organization wants to surgically remove the canned and frozen food eligibility from the House language so that only dried fruit rejoins the program.

But Costa as well as Haley, the Sun-Maid Growers’ lobbyist, said they support the House approach of adding dried, canned and frozen foods. In addition to dried fruit growers, Haley also represents producers of canned peaches and frozen strawberries and blueberries; he believes it makes political sense to expand the program widely.

“This change will give greater flexibility, to provide affordable and nutritious foods,” Costa said.

The House and Senate differences, combined with a tight calendar and conservative concerns about a subsidy bill with a 10-year price tag in the vicinity of $900 million, raises some doubts about whether Congress can get the job done in an election year. The current farm bill expires Sept. 30.

“I am very concerned about some of the differences between the two bills,” said Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, citing the House “cuts in food assistance by changing eligibility rules so that some people truly in need will not receive the help their family needs.”

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