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Wyden unveils healthy food act

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden proposed new legislation Sunday that could bring healthier food options to food stamp recipients and public schools.

During a news conference in the produce aisle of Sherm's Food for Less in Medford, Wyden detailed the Fresh Regional Eating for Schools and Health Act, which he hopes will be considered if Congress drafts a new Farm Bill in the upcoming year.

Wyden's proposed legislation would ease United States Department of Agriculture regulations for what foods are available for school lunches and the recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, formerly called food stamps.

(Correction: Information inadvertently omitted from this sentence has been added in this updated version.)

"We're talking about flexibility," said Wyden.

Wyden hopes that by creating a waiver for states that want to encourage nutrition within their food stamps programs and school lunch programs, states will be freed from regulations and come up with their own ideas to improve eating habits.

"This will help make our people healthier," said Wyden.

Wyden said that ideally schools and SNAP benefit recipients would have easy access to healthy, locally produced foods.

Medford pear grower Mike Naumes also spoke Sunday, explaining how the pear industry would potentially get involved.

Naumes explained that some pears are unfit for commercial sale because they aren't large enough, and never make it to stores.

Naumes used the small pears as an example of an unused resource that would be perfect for schools.

"If there's a way of creating more flexibility, everyone wins," Naumes said.

A representative from the Rogue Valley Farm to School program also spoke Sunday in favor of the proposed legislation.

Tracy Harding said she believes the nutritional options currently available in school lunches are unacceptable, and referred to the food given to students now as "low-rung remainders."

"The meat — I wouldn't really want to eat myself," said Harding.

Harding emphasized the importance of the opportunity to bring healthier food to children at school.

"Healthy learning environments include healthy food," said Harding.

Wyden said that allowing schools to gather their food locally would offer savings in transportation costs, and economic benefits to local farmers that participated.

In another push to help farmers in tough economic times, Wyden is also proposing to modifying USDA Farm Service Agency loan rules, in an effort to help young people purchase farm land.

Wyden said he wants the idea of farming to be attractive to young adults, and offer them incentive to purchase land.

Wyden hopes to provide funds for farmers, while simultaneously reducing paperwork burdens, and shortening the time required to receive a loan from the USDA.

Lastly, Wyden also wants recipients of SNAP benefits to have the option of using smartphone applications to purchase foods, as he said many farmers markets now accept credit and debit cards through such applications.

Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or tristow@mailtribune.com.

Correction: The caption on the photo has been updated to remove incorrect information.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. - Mail Tribune file photos