Policy: Health Care

Wisconsin pols save cranberries from USDA, for now

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Watchdog,Watchdog Reporter,Agriculture,Wisconsin,Health Care

MADISON, Wis. — Is the Obama administration's fatwa on fat going too far?

A bipartisan group of Wisconsin politicos, from members of the Badger State congressional delegation to Gov. Scott Walker, this week celebrated the U.S. Department of Agriculture's decision to exempt cranberries from its sugary foods and snacks naughty list.

"I'm pleased that the USDA has recognized the important health benefits of cranberries, especially for young people," said U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis. "Including them in national breakfast and lunch programs means more of our students can enjoy this delicious and nutritious fruit."

Such potential enjoyment almost was interrupted earlier this year when the USDA, in its war on all things sugary, greasy and fatty on the school menu, promulgated a federal rule that would have minimized or eliminated cranberries from being served in school.

The culprit? The added sugars, which the industry says are necessary to make the tart berries palatable.

Wisconsin's $200 million-plus cranberry industry makes a $350 million economic impact on the state, according to a University of Wisconsin study.

Wisconsin is by far the national leader in cranberry production, claiming about 57 percent of the nation's crop, according to the Cranberry Growers Association.

Wisconsin's two U.S. senators, six of its eight representatives, Walker and lawmakers from cranberry-rich Massachusetts, in a letter sent earlier this year urged the USDA to reconsider its rule.

The letter spelled out the nutritional value of cranberries, rich in fiber, vitamin C and disease-fighting antioxidants, even with a little sweetener added. Raisins are on the nice list of the National School Lunch Program and Breakfast Program, part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

The USDA relented, and cranberries are back on the school menu. So frozen fruit with added sugar gets a reprieve, for now, according to a USDA memo released late last month.

The final rule had originally required frozen fruit served in the National School Lunch Program contain no added sugar beginning in school year 2012-13, and no sugar in frozen fruit in the School Lunch Breakfast Program by the 2014-15 school year.

The new regulation allows for a water (unsweetened) or juice-only frozen fruit pack. USDA will allow sugary frozen fruit served until June 30, 2015.

"The industry continues to require additional time to reformulate frozen fruit products without added sugars that have a flavor and texture that is acceptable," the government memo states. "In addition, due to the growing season these products must be purchased with a long lead time to be available for schools."

But added sugar is on its way out on school menus. Since 2009, USDA has reduced the amount of added sugars in frozen fruits and a long list of food and beverages offered in public schools.

New department rules also scrap vending machines filled with candy and soda, exchanging the snacks and soft drinks with low-calorie sports drinks, diet soda, water, low-fat milk and trail mix.

The campaign to make school meals healthier is driven in large part by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and first lady Michelle Obama, who announced in 2012 new guidelines for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs.

In the war on childhood obesity, USDA has proposed limits on calories, fat, sugar and sodium.

"Parents and teachers work hard to instill healthy eating habits in our kids, and these efforts should be supported when kids walk through the schoolhouse door," Vilsack said earlier this year.

But in the process, long-standing school breakfast and lunch suppliers are being threatened to comply with the new standards or squeezed out altogether.

Tom Lochner, executive director of the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association, didn't want to comment on the industry's brush with the new USDA rules. He did say that cranberry growers look at the issue from a consumer perspective.

"We will provide what the consumer wants," he said.

And increasingly, what the consumer gets is what the government demands.

M.D. Kittle is a reporter for the Wisconsin Reporter, which is affiliated with the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

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