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Oregon Senator Pushes Local Pears For School Lunches

Mike Naumes thinks Oregon schoolchildren should be eating more Oregon pears. And not just the D'Anjou, Bartlett and Bosc pears approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's School Lunch Program, but the lesser-known Comice pears of southern Oregon's Rogue Valley.

Anyone who's ever tasted a Comice pear would have a hard time arguing with that. They're fat and green, extraordinarily sweet and juicy — a world apart from your typical supermarket pear.

But Comices are not on the USDA's OK-for-free-school-lunches list, probably because they're not a high-volume variety available nationwide.

That's why Naumes, a third-generation pear grower and president and CEO of Naumes, Inc., was standing in the parking lot of Sherm's Food for Less in Medford, Or., yesterday, touting the benefits of Oregon Senator Ron Wyden's new bill aimed at making it easier for schools to buy local produce.

"We find the school lunch program fairly cumbersome," Naumes tells The Salt. He's been lobbying to have the school lunch standards allow all types of pears, so he can sell the schools Comices that are too small for supermarkets. "They would be perfect for schoolkids," says. "And it would return more money to us farmers."

School lunch is nothing if not political. Last month, the idea that pizza could be a vegetable in school cafeterias caused a major ruckus, with House Republicans squelching new USDA nutrition standards that would have banned counting a spoonful of pizza sauce as a vegetable.

Wyen's bill, which will be introduced this week, is designed to be incorporated into the 2012 Farm Bill, a massive reauthorization of food and farm law. Wyden's tweaks would remove restrictions on types of fresh produce that schools can buy, and also let states apply for waivers to experiment with using food stamps to encourage healthier eating. A third component would make it simpler for farmers to apply for USDA loans for small amounts, say a few thousand dollars.

Pear growers might need those loans; fruit cultivation can be a perilous business. A late frost in spring 2010 decimated the Rogue Valley crop, and the recession has cut into high-end gift sales. Harry & David, the Oregon-based gift basket company that features Comices among other fruit, filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, with analysts saying the firm had failed to grow its business beyond holiday season treats into a year-round food source. The firm reorganized and emerged from bankruptcy in September.

Naumes has expanded the family business to pack pears for other growers, and is diversifying into other varieties. The company also exports a lot of pears to Mexico. But he says that knowing that the children of the Rogue Valley, where he raised three kids, could have Comice pears in the school cafeteria would be a sweet victory. "They're the best eating pears," he says.

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