WASHINGTON -- Offering school kids a free apple or banana might get them to eat less junk food, says the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, says a new farm bill that Congress is writing will subsidize the cost of giving away fruit and vegetables in some school cafeterias as an alternative to candy and snacks that are sold in vending machines.
''We want our kids to eat more fruits and vegetables,'' said Harkin, who outlined his idea Thursday to a gathering of produce growers. ''If we start out young in life eating more fruits and vegetables, then we can do that during our lifetime.''
Details of the program haven't been worked out, and Harkin conceded the problems inherent in storing perishable commodities. An aide said the giveaway probably would start out as a pilot project in a limited number of schools.
''We strongly support the idea and think it's a wonderful idea to give kids more fruits and vegetables,'' said Barry Sackin, director of government affairs for the American School Food Service Association.
The Senate is starting work this fall on a rewrite of farm and nutrition programs that are set to expire in 2002.
The Agriculture Department buys more than $800 million worth of food annually for schools. Most of the fruits and vegetables USDA buys are processed, although the department has been buying fresh apples recently to bolster crop prices.
Some schools in California, New York and other states are buying fresh produce from local farmers.
In a report issued at the end of the Clinton administration, USDA said that the snacks and soft drinks children consume at school are contributing to obesity and other health problems.
School food directors want Congress to give the department the authority to regulate what is sold outside cafeterias so it can restrict junk food sales. Lawmakers are unlikely to do that, however, because such sales have become a lucrative source of revenue for schools.
Kids typically eat about four servings of fruits and vegetables a day -- one fewer than the minimum recommended by the government. Moreover, potato chips and french fries account for one-quarter of the vegetables that children eat and almost one-third of those consumed by teen-agers.
''You've got to get nutrition education into the classroom. You've got to get the cafeterias to serve more fruits and vegetables,'' said Lorelei DiSorga, vice president of nutrition and health for the Dole Food Co.
According to Dole surveys, the most popular fruits with kids include bananas, grapes, watermelons and peaches. Children also go for salad bars and raw miniature carrots, she said. ''They don't like mushy stuff. With vegetables they like crunch.''
On the Net: Senate Agriculture Committee: http://agriculture.senate.gov
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