Produce meet covers issues, opportunities

Controversial immigration rule changes, health care needs and a changing produce shopper provided fodder for a forum at the 2005 Texas Produce Convention, held recently on South Padre Island.

Susan Combs, Texas Commissioner of Agriculture, moderated the forum discussion. She emphasized how a troubling health crisis in Texas and the rest of the nation could be in part remedied through an effort by vegetable and fruit producers to promote their healthy products.

“One of the best things — and it's actually a bad thing in itself — for your industry is the new focus on healthy nutrition for kids,” Combs said. “Obesity in children has doubled in the last 20 years, while 35 percent of Texas children are now overweight. If you are an obese kid, you have a 50 percent chance of being obese as an adult, and if you are obese at age 20, you'll lose 23 to 27 years of your life.”

Combs said about 50 percent of adults in the Texas Rio Grande Valley have been diagnosed with type-2 diabetes. Meanwhile, the state government spent millions of dollars on health care two years ago pertaining directly or indirectly to overweight adults.

“We have very sick people in Texas, and that's why partnering with producers is important,” she said. “Fruits and vegetables are a fabulous, important part of children's diets and they don't get enough of them.”

Combs said Texas government has recently begun an aggressive campaign toward promoting healthy diet habits in classrooms across the state, which targets 2.2 million school children. Such efforts have resulted in distributing posters published in English and Spanish.

She said the overall theme is dubbed: Good food and good exercise equals good grades.

“There is an absolute relationship in how these kids eat and their grades. And there are lots of nutrition education materials dealing basically with your industry,” she said.

Doubling consumption

“It's really important for you to be talking about the relationship between healthy children and fruits and vegetables — whether it is at the USDA farm bill level, or at your local school, restaurant or grocery story. It is a tremendous pairing I hope you work on.”

Tom Stenzel, president and chief operating officer of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, said health benefits linked to fruits and vegetables and promoted to help fight cancer could have more success with the emerging fight versus obesity.

“We just don't seem to think about what is going to happen to us 30 years from now,” Stenzel said. “But obesity is personal and it is immediate — unlike the cancer fight — and when you talk about impact today, we have more personal motivation than we have had before.”

He said a recent government survey estimated the obesity problem cost more than $75 billion in Medicare and Medicaid expenses.

Stenzel is convinced that the opportunity for fruit and vegetable growers as a means to prevent obesity could double domestic consumption, increasing its estimated current value of $80 billion annually to $160 billion annually.

Together, the public health sector is joining hands to tackle this issue, Stenzel said, while the agricultural changes looming in the next farm bill, currently under legislative reconstruction, will have a major boost.

While the fruit and vegetable sectors have never benefited from subsidy payments from farm legislation, he said, those two markets — which represent about 25 percent of all agricultural farm gate receipts — should get more focus.

“It's critical that all of you understand how important this is going to be,” he said. “That merging of the public health needs together with the changes in ag policy, I think, will give us an opportunity that requires us to step up to the table and take advantage of it.”

Labor issues

Monte Lake, a labor and immigration lawyer in Washington D.C., called on farmers in the audience to quickly become familiar on the plethora of immigration proposals swirling in Congress thanks to a fiery debate on the issue playing out in the media.

Because of the threats of terrorism, he said, attention has shifted to guarding the country's borders and how to handle illegal aliens already living here. Yet, Lake said the agricultural sector of the economy has long been dealing with the issue.

He said ag industry leaders knew a decade ago that 70 percent of its workforce held fraudulent citizenship documents.

“The political dynamic is that people say we've got to get rid of the aliens and we also must punish the employers who hire them. So there is going to be pressure for bills that are basically going to increase the penalties and fines, and finally make the (existing) immigration law work,” Lake said.

Because of the far-ranging cultural issues associated with the problem — from education to health care to labor laws — Congress has been reluctant to tackle illegal immigration directly, he said.

“Between 10-12 million people are now working in this country illegally. We can ignore it or tackle it,” he said. “But if we eliminate the immigrant workers, who is going to pay for our Social Security? Who will do the work? Who will pay the taxes?”

Lake said efforts to deport existing illegal aliens immediately would be the “death penalty” for the agriculture sector and also have a ripple effect on the rest of the nation's economy.

“The economic study shows that for every field worker you have, you create four to 10 other jobs. These exist because of these people and all of these industries would otherwise suffer significantly.”

Proposed solution

Lake suggested that one ag-promoted proposal being channeled through Congress could be a solution. It's one that loosely follows a similar guest worker program held during World War II, one that conditionally permitted Mexican workers while Americans fought overseas.

“We have spent billions on the border, yet illegal immigration has increased. It's not working. Right or wrong this is happening and the way to control it is to have a legal means for them to come and go back,” he said.

Lake said a solution will take time to install a revolving, legal means for immigrants to come to the United States for seasonal work and return home. It will also necessitate capital investments in housing infrastructure for them.

“If this is not on your radar screen, understand it and get your congressman engaged,” he said.

New shopper

Jason Duran, southwest regional buyer for Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market, which promotes whole foods and organic foods in its national chain of stores, said it is adapting to a new shopper demographic.

“We have been concentrating the past year on trying to understand the new generation of shopper,” Duran said. “These tend to be a second and a third generation of transplants into this country. So, they are looking for ethnic foods.”

Duran said these shoppers are tired of going out of their way to seek them out in ethnic stores and want to see them in the general grocery markets.

Thus, the objective for growers and retailers is to identify the best produce choices for the ethnic shopper and move it into the produce isles.

Duran also said Whole Foods management has determined that it's not economically prudent for stores to offer transitional produce. These categorized food items derive from a farm undergoing the 3-year mandatory certified period from traditional farming to organic farming, even though no pesticides or chemical fertilizers have been applied in production.

“There is a lot of explaining to do with this and it doesn't seem to warrant the higher costs,” he said.

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