Farm Bill Boosts Eastern WA Jobs and Healthier School Meals

Eastern peas & lentils will be on the menu for more school lunches, under Cantwell’s new ‘Pulse School Pilot’

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) applauded final Congressional passage of the Farm Bill, which will help open new markets to Eastern Washington crops and invest in research at Washington State University that is key to healthy harvests of wheat, barley, chickpeas and lentils.

The bill includes a pilot program authored by Cantwell to make school lunches healthier with more peas, lentils and chickpeas on the menu. Growth of peas and lentils – known as pulse crops – has increased dramatically in Eastern Washington over the last decade; Washington state is now the nation’s top producer of chickpeas. In October, Cantwell and Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID) led a bipartisan letter to ensure the Farm Bill included the pulse school pilot program and a new pulse health research program.

The Cantwell-championed legislation was approved in the Senate today by a vote of 68-32. It passed the House last week by a vote of 251-66, and now heads to President Obama’s desk for his signature.

In the Senate, Cantwell has led the push for passage of the Farm Bill that supports agriculture jobs in Washington state 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.

Today, Cantwell delivered a floor speech encouraging her colleagues to support the Farm Bill. Video of that speech is available here.

“The Farm Bill is a jobs bill for our nation and for Washington state,” Cantwell said in a floor speech today. “It maintains our investment in research and exports so that American farmers can thrive and win in the expanding global marketplace. And it helps get more goods to market – whether that’s a farmers market around the corner or a new market in South Korea.”

The bill continues critical trade programs – such as the Market Access Program – that expand markets for Washington-grown crops. Washington’s agriculture economy is worth $40 billion and supports 160,000 jobs. Spokane County has 2,502 farms – the second highest number in the state. Agriculture in the county generates $587 million in annual economic impact and supports 1,576 jobs. The market value of crops grown in Spokane, Lincoln, Adams, Whitman and Stevens counties is more than $800 million.   

Washington State University is a national leader in agriculture research and utilizes the Farm Bill’s research investments. The legislation 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 School Pilot would provide the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) $10 million through 2017 to purchase pulse crops to use in school breakfasts and lunches. Pulse crops are an excellent, cost-effective source of fiber, potassium, protein and other essential vitamins and nutrients. At the conclusion of the Pulse School Pilot, the USDA would 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.

“This Pulse School Pilot program will kick-start high-fiber, high-protein options for school lunches,” said Cantwell. “This initiative couples with a new research program in the Farm Bill that will study the health benefits of these foods. This is a win-win for Washington state: it means jobs for our agriculture producers and keeps our students healthy and ready to learn.”

Tim McGreevy, CEO of the American Pulse Association and the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council, said: “Pulse crops are truly one of nature's super foods. We believe the increased consumption of pulse crops could provide solutions to the health and nutrition problems facing our kids.  Pulse crops are an economical source of dietary fiber, potassium, iron, magnesium and protein.  Through this program we look forward to working with USDA and our nations school districts to introduce new healthy pulse crop menu choices that kids will love."

“This is a great opportunity to research and develop pulse crops into kid-friendly foods.  Currently, schools are offered canned and dried whole beans, lentils and peas through USDA Foods,” said Kim Elkins, Mead School District’s nutrition director and state Public Policy and Legislation chairwoman of the Washington School Nutrition Association. “It can be a struggle without the right equipment and the labor to make these into kid-accepted meals.  For schools to possibly have burritos, hummus, tortillas and other items already made from pulse crops that kids are familiar with and like will be a great way to add low-cost, nutrient-dense foods to our menus.”

The bill also includes the Cantwell-backed Pulse Health Initiative, which would support $25 million per year over five years in pulse crop health research grants to help increase public demand and drive job growth. The research would look into the health and nutrition benefits of pulse crops, including their ability to reduce obesity and associated chronic disease. 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.

Earlier in May, Cantwell visited Spokane Seed Company’s processing facility to highlight how these Cantwell provisions in the Farm Bill could help drive total farm acres of pulse crops in Washington state to more than double over the next 5 to 10 years, according to industry estimates. Nationwide, pulse crop production could also double in the next eight years.

“Now we have the opportunity to ‘spread the word’ of the benefits of these dry vegetables, in an effort to improve public health, and eventually health costs, across the nation,” said Peter Johnstone, CEO of Spokane Seed Company in Spokane Valley. “There is much more research to be done, as well.”

Washington state has 1,000 farm families producing pulse crops and 22 processors employing more than 300 people in Eastern Washington. Chickpea acreage in Washington state has exploded from less 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 increase to $250 million in 2013, up from $192 million in 2007 and $5 million in 1997. The value of pulse crop shipments handled via the Columbia-Snake River System reached nearly $50 million in 2011 – up from just over $30 million in 2001.

Cantwell called for passage of the Farm Bill in tours across the state in 2013, including two stops in Eastern Washington. In August, Cantwell toured a Spokane-area grain inspection lab and detailed the impact not passing a Farm Bill would have on Washington farmers, including the end of programs that research Washington crops and help to ship them overseas to new markets.  

The Farm Bill contains other key provisions that Cantwell has consistently supported to help Washington state farmers and producers stay competitive.

  • Specialty Crop Research: The bill would for the first time make a long term investment in the Specialty Crop Research Initiative and the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program. WSU has received Specialty Crop Block Grant investments to develop new planting and harvesting methods for tree fruit to help increase crop yields and protect workers. The Economic Research Service estimates that for every $1 invested in publicly funded research, $10 of economic activity is generated.
  • Farm Bill Energy Programs: The legislation retains $881 million for programs such as the Rural Energy for America Program, which provides competitive grant and loan guarantees for efficiency and renewable energy technologies. This has funded energy efficiency projects in Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla Counties.
  • Market Access Program: The Senate Farm Bill would invest $200 million a year in MAP, which the Washington Apple Commission has used to reach consumers and businesses in India. These efforts increased the number of Washington apples being sold there from a few thousand cartons to a record 3.3 million cartons worth over $61 million last season.

Washington’s wine industry has also used MAP to boost overseas sales. The Washington State Wine Commission secured MAP investments that helped the commission bring around 65 international wine buyers to Washington state for tours, seminars and tasting. More than 15 countries are usually represented on this tour according to the Washington State Wine Commission. Participating wineries have developed export opportunities in Scandinavia, Canada and China.