The Battle Over Sliced Apples: New York Senators Gillibrand and Aubertine Take Secretary Vilsack to Task on School Food | Civil Eats

The Battle Over Sliced Apples: New York Senators Gillibrand and Aubertine Take Secretary Vilsack to Task on School Food

gillibrandimage4

Newly minted US Senator and member of the Senate Agriculture Committee Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and New York State Senator (and retired dairy farmer) Darrel Aubertine wrote Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack a letter on February 26th asking that the USDA re-evaluate what is considered “processed” for the food in the national school Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program (FFVP).  No, these two senators are not lobbying for the Corn Refiners Association — they are pushing for local food.

FFVP was created by the USDA in 2002 to allocate more fruits and vegetables, served as “snacks” outside the school lunch and breakfast programs, to students at lower-income schools all over the country.  Thus the kids most at risk for obesity and diabetes get access to fruits and veggies.

One complication: much of the fruits and vegetables served to students outside of the lunchroom will need minimal handling before getting into student hands, lest apples become baseballs.  But cafeterias are not prepared time-wise, skill-wise or workman’s comp-wise for this endeavor, not to mention that cafeteria kitchens are at best giant reheating stations.  So for the time being, to get the freshest food it is best to outsource the cutting and bagging to a local value-add facility or local producer, until we build better infrastructure and train our cafeteria ladies to cook.

The FFVP was continued by the 2008 Farm Bill, which allows a “geographic preference for the procurement of unprocessed, locally grown and raised agricultural products,” for school lunch, breakfast and snack programs, as long as a competitive price is maintained.  But the Farm Bill also states that “de minimis handling and preparation might be necessary to present an agricultural product to a school food authority in a useable form.”

But as a part of Bush’s midnight regulations in January (when he and his cronies essentially trashed things further before heading out the door), his USDA Food and Nutrition Service re-defined what is considered “processed,” including that which is chopped, sliced or diced — effectively blocking fruits and vegetables from local sourcing, and from the hands of those who need real food the most.

Clearly Bush officials were taking liberties with the wording. From the Farm Bill:

newsmatch banner 2022

The Managers do not intend that the Food and Nutrition Service interpret the term “unprocessed” literally, but rather intend that it be logically implemented. In specifying the term “unprocessed,” the Managers’ use of the term intends to preclude the use of geographic preference for agricultural products that have significant value added components.

Of course, we’re not talking about local Wonderbread or cheesedoodles here.  Chopped apples, carrots, broccoli and their ilk, prepared nearby, will now lose this market share to the big ag processors simply because of wording.

From Gillibrand and Aubertine’s letter:

We’ll bring the news to you.

Get the weekly Civil Eats newsletter, delivered to your inbox.

The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program requires these snacks be served outside of standard school meal programs. Therefore, it is illogical to prohibit local produce as “processed” simply because it is in a form that can be served to students outside of the lunchroom.

Unlike most midnight regulations, this effort shouldn’t require a change of policy, but just a re-wording.  So if it’s so simple, why hasn’t Vilsack responded?  Maybe he would argue he has a lot on his plate.  Time will tell if Vilsack can impress the Real Food Lobby (that’s you, eaters with a conscience everywhere) with decisions that improve our food system, or whether he’ll continue to bolster big business in food and entertainment.

Today’s food system is complex.

Invest in nonprofit journalism that tells the whole story.

Paula Crossfield is a founder and the Editor-at-large of Civil Eats. She is also a co-founder of the Food & Environment Reporting Network. Her reporting has been featured in The Nation, Gastronomica, Index Magazine, The New York Times and more, and she has been a contributing producer at The Leonard Lopate Show on New York Public Radio. An avid cook and gardener, she currently lives in Oakland. Read more >

Like the story?
Join the conversation.

  1. Kathleen in NYS
    Dear Senators, Way to go! The nation's children are grateful for your good work. Keep it up!

More from

Farm Bill

Featured

Elena Terry, (left) and Zoe Fess smile after showcasing Seedy SassSquash, a signature family dish, during the Smithsonian’s

This Mother-Daughter Team Is Sharing Food Traditions from the Ho-Chunk Nation

Through their nonprofit Wild Bearies, Elena Terry and Zoe Fess are advancing intergenerational seed-saving and knowledge-keeping. A recent spotlight at the Smithsonian is helping them make strides.

Popular

Absent Federal Oversight of Animal Agriculture Safety, States and Others Step Up for Change

A happy and healthy-looking worker in a clean and well-lit dairy. Photo credit: Vera Chang.

Tyson Says Its Nurses Help Workers. Critics Charge They Stymie OSHA.

An anonymous worker, 48, from Guatemala, has worked at the Tyson in Green Forest, Arkansas, for 20 years. She needs carpal tunnel surgery in both arms, and Tyson doctors have confirmed that she needs it. However, Tyson has told her the company will not cover the cost of the surgery. Her husband, also a Tyson worker, died of COVID in 2020. (Photo by Jacky Muniello for Civil Eats)

Biogas Expansion May Compound Worker Risks

An overhead view of an anaerobic digester pond next to animal barns and a cornfield. (Photo credit: Maas Energy)

‘I Was Coughing So Hard I Would Throw Up’

An animal-ag worker carries two piglets in a CAFO.