Senate Approves Cantwell’s Bipartisan Amendment to Boost Pulse Crops in School Meals

‘Pulse School Pilot’ amendment added to Farm Bill would support WA state jobs and healthier school lunches nationwide

WASHINGTON D.C. – Today, the U.S. Senate approved Senator Maria Cantwell’s (D-WA) bipartisan amendment to the Farm Bill that would make school meals healthier and help create agriculture jobs in Washington state by increasing the use of pulse crops in school breakfasts and lunches. Pulse crops, which include dry peas, dry beans, lentils, and chickpeas, are nutritious, inexpensive and support thousands of agriculture jobs in Washington state.

Cantwell’s amendment (number 2370) was approved by a 58 to 41 vote and added to the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012 (S. 3240). Senators Patty Murray (D-WA), John Hoeven (R-ND) and Kent Conrad (D-ND) are cosponsors of Cantwell’s amendment. Cantwell’s amendment is supported by the American Heart Association.

“This amendment works to improve the nutritional value of school meals across America,” said Cantwell. “The Pulse School Pilot would be a win for kids, schools and agriculture jobs. Using more dried peas, lentils and chickpeas in school meals would make breakfasts and lunches healthier and help support jobs in Washington’s agriculture economy.”

Pulse crop production in Washington state supports thousands of jobs – including those in transportation, port facilities, equipment manufacturers, crop advisors, insurance, supplies, and other services. Washington state is the top chickpea producer in the nation and third in the nation for pea and lentil production and stands to greatly benefit from increased demand for pulse crops.

Washington has over 1,000 farm families producing pulse crops and 22 processors employing over 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 Seattle/Tacoma Port District reached nearly $130 million in 2011 – up from roughly $5 million in 2001.

“Pulse crops could play a pivotal role in providing children higher levels of vegetable protein, fiber and folic acids in their diets,” said Andrew J.J. Fontaine, V.P. of Sales and Marketing at Spokane Seed Company, an Eastern Washington food processor. “It’s time for this nation to get serious about school nutrition. We need to work collectively for the wellbeing of the next generation, and pulse products could be part of the answer.”

The Pulse Health Pilot would provide the Secretary of Agriculture $10 million through 2017 to purchase pulse crops for the school lunch and breakfast program. Cantwell’s amendment also requires a thorough evaluation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to determine the program’s  effectiveness. After the pilot’s completion, the department would evaluate:

  • if children increase their consumption of pulse crops
  • which crops are best fit for school breakfasts and lunches
  • recommendations for integrating pulse crop products into the school lunch and breakfast programs, and
  • how pulse crops change the nutritional levels in school meals.

More use of pulse crops in school meals has the potential to reduce obesity and diabetes and could improve the nutritional value of school meals across America. They are good sources of fiber, potassium, protein, and other essential vitamins and nutrients. Additionally, pulse crops are among the most cost-effective sources of these essential nutrients, so schools would be able to stretch their food purchasing dollars further.

Consumption of some pulse crops has increased rapidly across the nation. Retail sales of hummus – just $5 million in 1997 – are projected to increase to $250 million in 2013. During that same period of time in Washington state, a massive and rapid expansion of chickpea farming occurred. By 2012, there were nearly 80,000 acres of chickpeas in the state – up from less than 10,000 acres in 2000.

Cantwell’s school pilot amendment builds on a pulse crop research initiative included in the Farm Bill. On June 3rd, Cantwell joined local businesses, farmers and researchers at Spokane Seed Company in urging leaders on the Senate Agriculture Committee to make the ‘Pulse Health Initiative’ a top priority in the Farm Bill. In a letter to the committee, Cantwell noted that the initiative would support research into the health and nutritional benefits of pulse crops, and help increase public demand for the crops and create jobs.

The Pulse Health Initiative would authorize research grants for five years at $25 million per year. 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.

The Pulse Health Initiative could double pulse crop production nationwide over the next 8 years. In Washington, total farmed acres could more than double over the next 5 to 10 years, according to industry estimates.

The Farm Bill contains other provisions important to Washington state’s agriculture economy. These include continued investment in export promotion programs and specialty crops – both programs Cantwell has strongly supported to help Washington state farmers and producers stay competitive.

In a letter sent April 19th to Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow and Ranking Member Pat Roberts, Cantwell and Murray said key U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) export promotion programs must be maintained at current levels in the next farm bill. USDA export promotion programs including the Market Access Program (MAP), Foreign Market Development Program, the Emerging Markets Program, and the Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops Program all help sell American products in foreign markets. Cantwell, a longtime supporter of MAP, has led past Senate letters in support of the program.

On April 2nd, Cantwell signed onto a bipartisan letter signed by 31 other senators to Stabenow and Roberts urging the committee to “build on the strong foundation the 2008 Farm Bill created for specialty crop producers across the country.” Cantwell has long been a supporter of the specialty crop program and has fought for adequate funding for the program as a member of the Senate Finance Committee. She fought to make the 2007 Farm Bill – passed in May 2008 – the first to meaningfully address the specialty crops section of agriculture.

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, potatoes, and hops. Washington state is a top exporter of agricultural goods. Nearly $11 billion in food and agricultural products were exported through Washington ports in 2009, the third largest total in the United States.