Beans for life

Farm Forum

FARGO, N.D. — As America changes its school lunch program to improve nutrition and cut juvenile obesity in the next decade, every commodity wants a piece of the new pie — including beans and other pulse crops.

“We offer high nutrition and low cost, but the problem is there are supply chain gaps in what we can offer to schools,” says Janice Rueda, director of health and nutrition for the American Pulse Association, and one of the speakers at Bean Day 2013 at the Fargo (N.D.) Holiday Inn.

“We grow beans but, depending on what state you’re in, like Michigan, we don’t have a lot of people who process them into a form that a school can use readily. How many times can you serve baked beans? We want different side-dish, different main dish items — meat alternatives. We’re working with food manufacturers now to find things that students will find acceptable and enjoyable.”

If beans can increase prominence in school lunch programs, farmers can “cultivate customers for life.

“There’s a huge potential for a multi-faceted exposure to beans,” Rueda says. “You don’t just place your crop into the school feeding system. When you put something into schools, you get an educational component. You get to educate teachers and parents. You get to put your crop into a school garden. You can put it into a math class.”

During the course of a student’s life in school, there is an increased likelihood that he or she will remain consumers of beans for life.

Fifty-five million students in kindergarten through grade 12 were enrolled in U.S. public schools in the 2011 to ‘2012 school year. “What if each person ate an additional half-cup serving of pulses (including beans) per week? That would increase domestic demand by 418 million pounds” of beans per year, she says.

Working toward

healthy habits

Among other things, Rueda is working on a Pulse School Food Pilot Initiative. The Senate draft of the farm bill included a $10 million provision for the pilot program, but the bill stalled beneath budget struggles.

Schools have been spending a lot of money putting “whole grains,” including brown rice, on school food plates, but could do better with beans, Rueda says. “Pulse crops are the lowest-cost source of dietary fiber in the diet and the lowest-cost source of potassium in the diet,” Rueda says.

In a separate project, Rueda wants to focus on 10 states to provide a snapshot of how pulses are being used in school food settings — how they buy, and what they’re serving. Beans are competing with larger commodity groups that often have a bigger voice and may be more adept at taking advantage of food guideline changes, Rueda says.

Federal funding will have an impact on how much research funding is available. Dale Thorenson, a lobbyist for bean growers in Washington, D.C., says the farm bill remains a big, frustrating question as the House and Senate ag committee versions of a new multi-year bill were never taken to conference committees in 2012. If a new bill is considered, there likely will be fewer dollars available than last year — “certainly not enough to do what either Senate or the House envisioned doing in the last Congress.”

He said a multi-year extension with some adjustments “might be as good as it gets.”