New Farm Bill Passes House, Includes Cantwell Program to Make School Lunches Healthier

Hummus, peas and lentils could be on the menu in more schools, supporting Washington farmers

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) announced the Farm Bill that passed the House of Representatives today includes her provisions to pave the way for healthier school meals and for research to definitively establish the health benefits of peas, chickpeas and lentils. The Farm Bill was approved by a vote of 251-166 in the House and now heads to the Senate for consideration.

Cantwell has been a leading Senate voice calling for passage of a Farm Bill to support agriculture jobs in Washington state and around the nation. In 2012, she and Senator Mike Johanns (R-NE) led a bipartisan letter with 42 senators urging action on a Farm Bill. In 2013, she and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID) led a bipartisan letter in support of provisions for pulse crops – chickpeas, peas, beans and lentils – which are frequently grown in rotation with wheat in Washington and Idaho.

The conference report announced Monday night includes several Cantwell-backed provisions, including:

  • Creating a Pulse School Pilot program, authored by Cantwell, to enable the U.S. Department of Agriculture to use more healthy chickpeas, peas and lentils as a protein source for  school meals.
  • Creating a Pulse Crop Health Initiative to launch a study to officially establish the nutritional benefits of chickpeas, peas, beans and lentils.
  • Expanding and making permanent the Specialty Crop Research Initiative and the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program that is critical for research for apples, potatoes, cherries and other specialty crops.
  • Maintaining stable investment in the Market Access Program and Foreign Market Development Program, which Washington farmers have used to increase exports of pears, apples, wine and other food products.
  • Maintaining investment for important agriculture and rural energy efficiency and bioenergy production programs which the House had eliminated in its original Farm Bill.

“This bill is a big win for Eastern Washington growers, for agriculture research and WSU, and for healthier lunches in our schools,” Cantwell said. “Peas, lentils and chickpeas are a real success story in Eastern Washington – with more than 80,000 acres supporting thousands of jobs in Washington state. These initiatives would mean more research into the health benefits of this booming Washington state crop. Peas and lentils aren’t just the gateway to better health for Americans – they’re also the gateway to more jobs in Eastern Washington. With the right investments, acreage of chickpeas, peas and lentils could double and support even more Washington jobs.

“The Farm Bill is a critical jobs bill for Congress – and we’ve made major progress to getting it passed,” Cantwell continued. “Agriculture means 160,000 jobs in Washington state, from exporters in Seattle to wheat farmers in the Palouse to cherry growers in Yakima. For the first time, this bill will make specialty crop research for potatoes and apples a permanent part of the Farm Bill. And it will help connect more Washington farmers and exporters to new markets overseas.”

The final Farm Bill saves more than $20 billion by ending the system of direct payments to farmers. It also contains other provisions important to Washington state’s agriculture economy. These include continued investment in export promotion programs like the Market Access Program (MAP) and specialty crops – both programs Cantwell has strongly supported to help Washington state farmers and producers stay competitive.

Cantwell’s Pulse School Pilot provision (Sec. 4213) would authorize $10 million through 2017 for the United States Department of Agriculture 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. 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 program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture would determine the program’s effectiveness by measuring increases in student consumption of pulse crops, identifying the pulse crops students prefer and determining how pulse crops change nutritional levels in school meals. The Pulse School Pilot program is modeled after the successful 2008 Farm Bill Whole Grains Pilot program, which helped the USDA purchase five million pounds of whole grain pancakes and tortillas for schools.

The Farm Bill also includes Cantwell’s Pulse Crop Health Initiative, which would authorize $25 million per year over five years in pulse crop health research to officially establish the health benefits of these foods in order 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 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.

Other key provisions in the Farm Bill for Washington state include:

  • 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 by providing 10 years of baseline funding. The research initiative would receive $80 million per year and the block grant program $72.5 million annually from 2014-2017, then $85 million for 2018. WSU has been awarded Specialty Crop Block Grant investments to develop new planting and harvesting methods for tree fruits to help increase crop yields and improve workers’ safety. The Agriculture Department Economic Research Service estimates that for every $1 invested in publicly funded research, $10 of economic activity is generated.
  • Market Access Program: The 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 more than $61 million last apple 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 host  65 international wine buyers to Washington state for tours, seminars and tastings. Before this MAP funding was secured, these tours hosted at most  15 international buyers, according to the Washington State Wine Commission. Because of the MAP funding, participating wineries have developed export opportunities in Scandinavia, Canada and China. 
  • Clean Plant Network: The Farm Bill would invest $62.5 million for 2014-2017. The network provides specialty crop growers in Washington state with pathogen-tested plant material to ensure that disease-free rootstock is being planted. The Prosser Agriculture Research Station provides clean plant material to hundreds of grape and hop farmers in Washington state. 
  • Energy Provisions: The final bill preserves mandatory investments for key energy programs. Those programs include the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) that provides competitive grants and loan guarantees for efficient and renewable energy projects at farming businesses and the Biomass Research and Development Initiative.

Washington state is a national hub for agriculture and a leading center for agricultural research. The agriculture industry employs 160,000 people across Washington state and generates $40 billion for our economy. Washington state grows more than 250 specialty crops and ranks number one in production in the nation for 10 commodities, including apples, red raspberries, sweet cherries, pears, and hops. The state is also the third highest recipient of Specialty Crop Block Grants in the nation behind only California and Florida.

Washington has more than 1,000 farm families producing pulse crops and 22 processors employing more than 300 people in Eastern Washington. 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. The value of pulse crop shipments handled via the ports of Seattle and Tacoma reached nearly $130 million in 2011 – up from roughly $5 million in 2001.

Chickpea acreage in Washington state has exploded from fewer than 10,000 acres in 2000 to nearly 80,000 acres in 2012. According to the USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council, Washington state’s acreage of dry peas, lentils and chickpeas increased 20 percent in just one year, from 2010 to 2011. 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. This increase has supported thousands of jobs in Washington state, including at the 22 processors in Eastern Washington.