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"It is all natural": The 18-term legislator who wants NC grape juice in every public school, college, and university

After a failed attempt during a previous session, legislators are again trying to pass a law that would require 100 percent muscadine grape juice to be available in every public school, college, and university.

Note: A version of this report originally appeared in The Wilmington Dive, a weekly newsletter with original reporting, collaboratively published by The Assembly and WHQR. You can find that newsletter here — and sign up for the free newsletter here.

House Bill 67, known as the Encourage Healthy NC Food in Schools, really only encourages one food — or, rather, beverage.

The bill requires every public school, community college, and component institution of the University of North Carolina to provide 100 percent muscadine grape juice, squeezed from the state fruit.

The bill passed the House in March, with little pushback. Republicans uniformly supported it; Rep. Deb Butler of New Hanover County was one of eight Democrats who voted against it.

“Legislators are neither educators, nor nutritionists,” Butler told WHQR. “Our public school system is grossly underfunded and this is an unfunded mandate that will cost schools more money. I also suspect much of this mandated ‘juice’ will wind up being wasted. I do not think legislators have any business dictating school menus.”

The bill is, as Butler noted, unfunded. although it does include a provision — from co-sponsor Rep. Julia Howard, an 18-term representative from Davie County — that requires the state to buy back unused grape juice.

Howard also sponsored the similar House Bill 136 back during the 2021 session. That bill passed the house with little trouble, but got benched by the Senate (it was a tough time for Howard, who was also booted as chair of the House Finance committee by Speaker Tim Moore when she broke ranks on a pandemic-related tax break bill).

The new bill survived crossover day, when most legislation must make it into the opposite chamber or perish, but it’s been sitting quietly in a Senate committee since then.

But, back up, how did this bill even come about?

As theWinston-Salem Journalreported, in 2016 Howard did receive a $2,700 donation from the owner of Mighty Muscadine, a company based in Howard’s own Davie County. But that seems like a rather small sum — and a long wait — for legislation mandating muscadine juice in schools.

We reached out to all three primary co-sponsors of the bill, asking (1) who, if anyone, lobbied for the bill, (2) why there was a need to require schools, colleges, and universities to provide it, and (3) if the representatives had any concerns about the sugar content of grape juice, given that sugary sodas are currently banned during instructional hours.

The only response came from Howard.

“It is the state fruit. No added sugar,” was her initial, somewhat terse response.

When WHQR noted that grape juice isn’t sugar-free, she replied that it “is all natural.”

In a follow-up, WHQR pointed out the bill appeared to “picking winners and losers,” a common conservative critique of state incentives, and asked what Howard would say to, for example, North Carolina apple juice producers.

Howard wrote, “Please go buy an apple/ orange juice, less than 20 percent juice and added sugar.”

While there are many juice brands containing 20 percent (or less) real juice and added sugar, WHQR was also easily able to find 100-percent apple juice without added sugar on the shelves of several local stores, in some cases at a lower price point than muscadine juice.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.