Johna goes to Washington: ShopRite of Tallman dietitian visits Congress to talk produce & nutrition 

BY JOHNA MAILOLLI, R.D., L.D.

Walk into any produce section of a supermarket and you are greeted by a vast and abundant selection of fresh fruits and vegetables available to you every day, 52 weeks per year. But have you ever wondered just how that produce gets into your supermarket? 

Probably not; there are probably a lot more interesting topics for you to google unless you’re one who works with directly with produce. One thing I can tell you is that it’s a lot of work! And with this task comes great responsibility, accountability and – inevitably – obstacles. 

Recently I had the opportunity to attend a produce conference in Washington DC that focused on a topic I am not well versed in: legislation. This conference was unlike any other educational experience I have had. Individuals within the produce industry from growers to distributors were all on hand. 

It really opened my eyes to the difficult and complex issues that the produce industry is facing today. Issues such as labor and immigration, global trade relations, and food safety are affecting the industry.  

One issue that was listed as a key topic at this conference, to my delight, was nutrition. Many government food and nutrition programs include produce, which all fall under the Farm Bill, a bill is being reviewed and possibly revised as you read this article! 

One of the positions and recommendations from the United Produce Association was to make the SNAP program more nutrition-focused, which as a dietitian, I could not agree with more. The SNAP program is considered both a food security and nutrition program, however, individuals who participate in this program do not necessarily buy the most nutritious foods. 

Somehow, sugar-sweetened beverages and candy are items that one may purchase with SNAP.  When a study done in 2011 by a major supermarket retailer looked at what SNAP participants were purchasing, it was alarming to see sweetened beverages like soda ranked high on the list. 

Why would we to continue to keep soda on the shopping list when we know it contains zero nutritional value and is a major contributor to chronic diseases like diabetes in both children and adults?

Another recommendation was to continue to support and strengthen incentives for produce purchases, which are funded by grants from the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program, known as FINI. Incentive programs include produce voucher programs where SNAP participants who buy produce receive additional opportunities to purchase more produce whether from a grocery retailer or farmers market. One of our ShopRite dietitians actually applied to FINI and received a grant for 45,000 to implement this produce voucher program. 

The results of her program showed a 100 percent increase in produce consumption. The success of these programs prove that when low income individuals are given additional opportunities to incorporate fruits and vegetables, they’ll take it! 

This creates a win-win situation for the businesses, dietitians, and brings us one step closer toward eradicating America’s obesity epidemic. Hospitals and physicians can also elect to participate in produce prescription programs where doctors prescribe produce to their clients who receive SNAP benefits. How cool is that? 

A unique part of this conference was that as a team, we were able to actually meet with both House representatives and senators on Capitol Hill to voice our concerns, as well as make proposals for possible solutions. I wasn’t sure what to expect, to be honest, as this was my first time meeting with Congressional reps about anything.

I also questioned how I would fit in on my team as a supermarket registered dietitian. My doubts and feeling soon changed after our first few appointments. I was surprised and pleased to see how receptive many of the representatives and senators were to our issues. 

I found the  confidence to speak my part by sharing the impact I’ve seen from these programs, such as through the fruit and vegetable program. This is a program where children get to try a free piece of fruit or vegetable. 

For some kids, it is an opportunity to try a fruit or vegetable they have never tried before.  Can you believe there are kids in the United States who have never tried sweet potatoes or even strawberries? 

It was at that moment I knew that I was in the right place and that I was the right person to be speaking about this topic. 

I left Washington DC feeling empowered and wanting to become more involved in legislation supportive of good health, as well as more involved in the produce industry. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to share my voice with representatives of the American people.

*Johna would like to thank the Caplan Family for this the opportunity to attend the United Fresh Washington Conference. The Frieda Rapoport Caplan Family Business Scholarship Program provides scholarships for representatives from family businesses to participate in the United Fresh Annual Washington Conference. The Program launched in 2001 by Karen Caplan and Jackie Caplan Wiggins, Frieda’s, Inc., on behalf of their mother, Frieda Rapoport Caplan.