Cantwell: New Farm Bill Means Jobs in Eastern Washington, Healthier School Meals

Peas and lentils support 5,000 jobs in Washington state; jobs could double with new programs

Spokane, WA – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) stopped at a high-tech crop research lab in Pullman and a Spokane-area high school lunchroom to detail the benefits of the new Farm Bill to Washington state. The legislation – signed into law by President Obama this month – includes two provisions that will help Eastern Washington’s booming pulse crop industry by supporting new research and opening the door to more school menus made with pulse crops like peas, lentils and chickpeas.

Cantwell concluded a three-day state tour Friday with a visit to a lab at Washington State University in Pullman where pulse crop research takes place. Her final stop was Mead High School, where the school district already serves garbanzo beans, lentils and hummus as part of school meals.

The Farm Bill was signed into law on February 7. Cantwell has been a leader in the push for passage of the Farm Bill that supports agriculture jobs in Washington and across the nation. In 2012, she and Senator Mike Johanns (R-NE) led a bipartisan letter with 44 senators urging action on a Farm Bill.

“I want to thank Mead High School for already being the leader in this part of the state for consuming these products,” Cantwell said. “Healthy school lunches of high fiber and high protein are a great way to go in the future, and it also helps us produce jobs in Washington state.”

Cantwell toured Mead’s school kitchen with staff and students, and sampled hummus, roasted lentils and veggie hummus wraps that are now part students’ lunch menu.

“Students today are smart consumers,” said Kim Elkins, Mead School District nutrition director and Public Policy and Legislation chairwoman of the Washington School Nutrition Association. “They want options that are healthy, vegetarian, and are locally produced. Pulse crops meet all the criteria.”

“School Nutrition programs recognize the great benefits of using pulse crops. They are a less expensive protein source so it stretches our dollars we spend on food,” she said.

The Pulse School Pilot provision – authored by Cantwell -- will provide the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) $10 million through 2017 to purchase pulse crops to use in school breakfasts and lunches. This could include raw beans and lentils as well as foods made from pulse crops, such as hummus. Pulse crops are low cost, and loaded with protein, fiber and other nutrients. Flours made from pulse crops could also be added to breads, tortillas and pastas to enhance their nutritional value.

At the conclusion of the Pulse School Pilot, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will determine the program’s effectiveness by measuring increases in student consumption of pulse crops, identifying pulse crops students prefer and determining how pulse crops change nutritional levels in school meals. The Pulse School Pilot is modeled after the successful 2008 Whole Grains Pilot program, which helped the USDA purchase five million pounds of whole grain pancakes and tortillas for schools.

Washington state is the top chickpea producer in the nation – producing nearly half of the nation’s total. Washington is 3rd in the nation for pea and lentil production. The state’s pulse crop industry employs an estimated 5,000 people, whether it’s processing, growing, exporting or transporting of pulse crops. Eastern Washington has about 1,000 farm families and 22 processors involved in producing pulse crops.

Chickpea acreage in Washington state has exploded from fewer than 10,000 acres in the year 2000 to nearly 80,000 acres in 2012. A main driver of increased demand for chickpeas in the last decade has been increased demand for hummus. Retail sales of hummus are projected to have increased to $250 million in 2013, up from $192 million in 2007 and $5 million in 1997. The value of pea, lentil and chickpea shipments handled via the ports of Seattle and Tacoma reached nearly $130 million in 2011 – up from roughly $5 million in 2001.

In Pullman, Cantwell toured the Plant Growth Facility on Washington State University’s campus that focuses research on legumes and wheat. Cantwell was joined by researchers, farmers, and university officials to talk about how research supported by the Farm Bill helps Eastern Washington’s agriculture industry. Whitman County has a $250 million agriculture economy that supports 1,200 farms in the area. Whitman is also the top wheat producing county in the entire United States and in the top five for lentil production. 

“As you look forward to eating your hummus in the lunch line, realize that chickpeas are grown in Washington,” said Todd Scholz of the USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council. “That’s only because of research. And the jobs that came from that research helped us to learn how to raise chickpeas.”

WSU is a national leader in agriculture research that uses the Farm Bill’s research investments, and would be well-positioned for grants under the Pulse Health Initiative, which Cantwell championed in the recent legislation. The initiative would support $25 million per year over five years to discover all the nutritious benefits of pulse crops.

The Farm Bill also reauthorizes $700 million for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, which supports WSU’s research to develop new varieties of wheat that use less water and grow in more diverse climates. The initiative also supports research into how wheat can better resist ‘stripe rust,’ a fungal infection that strikes Washington state wheat.

The Pulse Health Initiative research would look into the health and nutrition benefits of pulse crops, including their ability to reduce obesity and associated chronic diseases. The initiative would support technical expertise to help food companies use nutrient-dense pulse crops in their products as well as establish an educational program to encourage the consumption and production of pulse crops.

Once health benefits are more widely known, the U.S. Dry Pea and Lentil Council expects demand to increase and double Washington state acreage of dry peas, lentils and chickpeas over the next five to 10 years.