Encouraging news on the healthy food front

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Fans of Jamie Oliver may be encouraged by the Nebraska Legislature's second-round approval of a bill that would offer grants and loans to improve access to healthy foods.

If you haven't caught his shows on television, celebrity chef Oliver's current effort is to replace processed foods with fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables. Although his show hit roadblocks with the Los Angeles school system, he did appear on the Jimmy Kimmel Live program with his nemesis, the head of the school system, bearing the promise of a proposal to remove flavored milk from the lunch line.

Omaha Sen. Brenda Council's bill would offer tax credits and encourage private funding for grocery stores, farmers markets and community gardens that serve low-access areas.

She has argued that her legislation would help fill needs in urban and rural regions called "food deserts."

Opponents say her bill could hurt grocery stores already struggling on slim margins, and, besides, there really isn't that much demand for "healthy" foods.

Both sides have a point, but it is true that most people's diets could use a lot more healthy foods, and shows like Jamie Olivers have a place in that.

And, with fuel costs pushing up the price of groceries, there's more incentive to buy locally grown foods, even if through conventional retail grocery channels.

It's appropriate in light of state budget troubles that Council's bill has been amended to cap the total available tax credit each year at $200,000.

But let's hope the law is enacted, and Southwest Nebraskans take advantage of it.

Healthy-food advocates should also be encouraged by the announcement Tuesday that USDA child nutrition programs are implementing new rules designed to encourage the use of local farm products in school meals.

The rule will let schools and other providers give preference to unprocessed locally grown and locally raised agricultural products when they purchase food for the National School Lunch, School Breakfast, Special Milk, Child and Adult Care, Fresh Fruit and Vegetable and Summer Food Service programs.

"This rule is an important milestone that will help ensure that our children have access to fresh produce and other agricultural products," said Agriculture Under Secretary Kevin Concannon. "It will also give a much-needed boost to local farmers and agricultural producers."

The USDA is touting the change as part of its "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" initiative designed to "break down barriers that keep local food systems from thriving, create new opportunities for farmers, ranchers, consumers and rural communities, and expand access to healthy food throughout the country."

The USDA expects consumer demand for locally grown food in the U.S. to rise from an estimated $4 billion in 2002 to as much as $7 billion by 2012.

The program encourages schools to let students visit farms, ranches and other producers to find out where their food actually comes from. Like State Sen. Council's bill, the USDA initiative should gain momentum from potential savings in fuel prices.

Even in rural Southwest Nebraska, a lot of us might be surprised how little many kids and adults actually know about that topic. Perhaps the upside of high fuel prices will help improve that aspect of their education.

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