Right To The Core: Apples Pivotal In Child Nutrition Programs

President Obama recently signed into law the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which raises the reimbursement rate for school lunches for the first time in nearly 40 years. The bill passed unanimously in both Houses of Congress. The increased funding is directly tied to improving the nutritional quality of the school meals, including the addition of more fruits and vegetables. The legislation also allows USDA to set nutritional standards for foods sold in vending machines and a la carte lines in school cafeterias.

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This is great news for our industry as we move into harvesting and marketing the 2010 apple crop. But it is even more important to the children participating in the National School Lunch Program.

Child obesity rates in the U.S. are at the highest point ever. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of obesity in children ages six to 19 has nearly tripled since 1980, with close to 20% now considered obese.

The issue has become such a national concern that First Lady Michelle Obama has made reducing childhood obesity her signature issue, launching the national “Let’s Move” campaign. Fresh fruit and vegetables, including apples, are an integral part of this initiative. This is important, since research has consistently shown that regular apple consumption may contribute to weight loss.

USApple is continually monitoring inventories of fresh and processing apples, and focusing on effectively and efficiently driving down apple supplies by increasing apple demand. One key strategy is to encourage apple and apple product purchases by the federal government for federal feeding programs, particularly those associated with children.

Nutrition and increasing consumption have long been a top priority at USApple. We successfully supported a number of key programs to accomplish these goals, which were included in the 2008 Farm Bill and are now being implemented by USDA. In the next Farm Bill, which Congress will start writing next year, USApple will
strive to expand these demand-building programs.

Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act

Every five years, federal nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) must be renewed under the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act. Lawmakers review the programs and make needed adjustments and improvements.

The Obama Administration, including Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, strongly supports healthy school meals delivered through the National School Lunch Program, National School Breakfast, and other programs designed for children because they are integral to decreasing childhood obesity and lowering health care costs. Congress appears to share this support, demonstrated by its expansion of funding for these programs in the 2008 Farm Bill.

Complementing the National School Lunch Program is the Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program, which aims to provide a free fruit or vegetable snack to students in low-income areas. This includes apples and apple products, such as apple sauce. The 2008 Farm Bill stipulates that funds be increased for each year of the Farm Bill, so for this school year there is $65 million, which then jumps to $101 million for the next year and then to $150 million. Since funding is distributed based on population — the number of schools per state varies with the current range being anywhere from 30 schools in the smaller states to more than 100 schools in larger states — the number of eligible schools will keep growing as the funds increase.

For the first time, apples are now an eligible item in the WIC program, thanks to USDA’s revision of its list of eligible food for purchase to reflect the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, per the recommendation of the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences. Inclusion of significantly expanded fruit and vegetable purchases, including apples, under the WIC program became operative nationwide on Oct. 1, 2009. 

USApple worked to add apples and other produce to the large and very important WIC program. Almost half of all infants and about a quarter of all children ages one to four in the U.S. participate in the program. More than 8.7 million people get WIC benefits each month — including more than 2.22 million infants and 4.33 million children. The goal of the WIC program is to safeguard the health of low-income women, infants, and children through age four who are at nutritional risk. With $6.86 billion in federal funding for FY 2009 — for purchases at traditional retail outlets such as supermarkets, but also farm markets — WIC is USDA’s third-largest food and nutrition assistance program and accounts for 10% of total federal spending on food and nutrition assistance.

Keeping Apples Center Plate

Expanding the number of apples used in key federal nutrition programs, especially those associated with children, remains a top USApple priority. Passage of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act is a critical moment in this process. USApple will continue working with USDA and Congress — providing testimony, participating in field hearings and other advocacy on Capitol Hill — to communicate the message that apples are healthy, affordable, and an essential part of every food and nutrition assistance program.