September 18, 2009

With Apple Season in Full Harvest in NY, Gillibrand Secures Commitment from Feds to Allow Farmers to Deliver Locally Grown Fruits and Vegetables to Schools

Gillibrand Leading the Fight on Behalf of NY Farms, USDA Lifts Unnecessary Regulation Preventing Schools from Accepting Locally-Produced Apples and Other Foods

Washington, DC - After leading the fight on behalf of New York farmers, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand secured a commitment from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that will allow New York farmers to process fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables for children to snack on in New York schools.  In February, Senator Gillibrand sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack requesting that he change an administrative rule barring local farmers from delivering pre-cut and packaged fruit and vegetables to schoolchildren.  This week, on a phone call with the USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, Senator Gillibrand received a commitment that the USDA will reverse this interpretation and open up the Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program to allow local farmers to participate.

"We have to let our farmers do what they do best, and that's deliver fresh fruits and vegetable to local communities," said Senator Gillibrand.  "New York farmers produce some of the highest quality, fresh produce in the country. The Farm Bill was supposed to make it easier for farmers to sell produce directly to New York schools, and this USDA ruling will finally ensure that our students will have healthy New York produce and our farmers can earn the extra income that comes from providing value-added products such as pre-cut apples.  During difficult economic times, we need this new market to create jobs."

State Senator Darrel J. Aubertine, D-Cape Vincent, chair of the New York State Senate's Agriculture Committee said, "When we make local food available in our schools, our children get the freshest and finest produce available. We asked Secretary Villsack and the USDA to review this because the enforcement of de minimis handling had been contrary to what the bill's authors and all of us in the farm community were looking for. I'm pleased to see that they are reviewing this and that New York farmers will have the opportunity to provide fresh snacks for our school children."

"City Harvest is pleased to learn that the USDA is taking another look at the language in the Farm Bill around de minimis processing, so that items like sliced fresh apples from New York State farms can be part of healthy school lunches.  Organizations that care about hunger and nutrition in New York City, and who care about improving school meals, have been asking for this change for some time," said Jilly Stephens, Executive Director of City Harvest.

The Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program in the 2008 Farm Bill authorizes schools to buy local produce that has not been processed for students to eat outside of school cafeteria programs. This program operates best when this local produce has been washed, sliced and bagged, since it is eaten outside of the lunchroom. Until now, the USDA interpretation of what it means for local produce to be considered "processed" has prevented local farms from participating.

In the Farm Bill's Joint Explanatory Statement, the authors of the bill said the term "unprocessed" should not be taken literally, but rather "logically implemented" to allow the preparation necessary to deliver farm products "to a  school food authority in a usable form."

In February, Senator Gillibrand teamed up with New York State Senator Aubertine, to ask the USDA to "...remain mindful of the vitality and value of New York's farms, the health of our school children, and the positive benefits of promoting local agriculture."

In their letter, Senator Gillibrand and State Senator Aubertine stated that Farm to Fork programs create wealth and lead to increased employment through agriculture, "creating a ripple effect that strengthens our struggling rural communities. Additionally, locally grown and distributed food is likely to be fresher and more nutritious, a key to fighting childhood public health problems from obesity to diabetes."