WASHINGTON -- Are canned pears the nutritional equivalent of a juicy fruit off the tree? House Republicans seem to think so. And their proposal to tinker with a program that serves fresh fruit and vegetables to children in select schools has touched off the ultimate food fight.
As Congress debates whether to renew farm legislation, the Senate is pressing to keep the program limited to fresh produce. The House, however, has proposed making room for frozen, canned and dried produce -- agitating program supporters and pitting factions of the food industry against one another in a bout of frenetic lobbying.
Since its creation a decade ago, the tiny program has been distributing free fresh fruit and vegetables as snacks to elementary schools that have a high percentage of low-income children, a group that typically has less exposure to fresh produce and does not consume anywhere near the amount recommended by national dietary guidelines.
The effort raised consumption in participating schools by a quarter-cup per day, or 15 percent, according to an analysis released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program. The increase did not contribute to weight gain, suggesting that the fruit and vegetables replaced other foods, the study said.
In 2008, Congress set aside $1.2 billion to cover the program through 2017. Last year, USDA spent $150 million to cover snacks for up to 3 million kids.
Advocates of the House legislation say schools should have access to produce in all forms. The frozen, canned and dried varieties are often more affordable than fresh produce, they argue, and their inclusion would enable schools to provide a wider range of options year-round.
"If the goal is to expand and improve upon childhood nutrition, it doesn't make sense to limit the kinds of fruits and vegetables that schools serve," said Corey Henry, a spokesman for the American Frozen Food Institute, who argues that processed produce can be just as nutritious as fresh. "Let the schools decide."
Coalitions representing firms that make processed, canned and frozen food said in a recent letter to the House Agriculture Committee that expanding the program "will teach kids how to get the most nutrition bang for their buck." School nutrition associations in three states -- California, New York and Texas -- have signed on.
But while the California School Nutrition Association wants the program expanded, the California Department of Education does not. The department said kids have plenty of exposure to frozen, canned and dried produce in federally subsidized school meals. United Fresh Produce Association, a trade group that primarily represents fresh-produce firms, has made the same argument.
"We would prefer that the word 'fresh' remain the priority," said Sandip Kaur, acting director of the nutrition services division at the Education Department. "It's the 'fresh' that makes this program unique."
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the program's lead sponsor, and others who want the program to remain intact say they have nothing against frozen, canned or dried produce. But opening up the program threatens to undermine its integrity, they said.
"We may see the floodgates open for perhaps less nutritious foods," said Matthew Marsom, a vice president at the Public Health Institute, a nonprofit group dedicated to improving public health. "There's nothing (in the House bill) that would stop fruit cups with syrup or frozen Tater Tots with sodium. You just don't get those problems with fresh."
In fact, when the program was introduced in select states, it allowed for a limited amount of dried fruit. But then the schools started offering trail mix, said a Harkin aide who helped craft the program. So dried fruit got the boot in 2008.
Since then, those who back the current program say, the dried fruit supporters have been furious about getting shut out while the canned and frozen food supporters are furiously knocking to get in.
"I'm regularly lobbied to add nuts to the program, to add dried fruits to the program, to add canned and frozen fruits and vegetables to the program," Harkin said at a food industry gathering last year. "I once had someone suggest that Congress add beef jerky to the program."
Harkin said the case for expanding the program is not compelling.
"Even the schools that support changing the program to serve dried fruit or frozen vegetables are not dropping out," he said in a statement this month. "So there is no reason to risk undermining an effective program when no one can reasonably point to a problem with the way it is working right now."