SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program has increased fresh produce consumption by 15% for kids in participating schools, according to an analysis of the program.

USDA kids' snack program shows produce eating boostSpeaking at a Hy-Vee supermarket, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the results of a 398-page evaluation of the program, heralding the gain in consumption as a key part of the agency’s effort to improve access to healthy foods. A summary of the report is also available.

The program provides a fresh fruit or vegetable snack to students during the school day as a supplement to the school breakfast and lunch programs.

Vilsack said when given a choice, 97% of participating students tried fruits and 84% tried vegetables.

“If given a chance, youngsters will make the right choice,” he said.

Vilsack said the program is just one step the USDA has taken in recent years to promote healthy eating in schools.

“One-third of our children today are obese or at risk of being obese,” he said said.

Elizabeth Pivonka, president of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, Hockessin, Del., said the students’ 15% increase in consumption is significant.

The study showed children ate 2.39 cups of fruits and vegetables a day, compared with 2.07 cups for students at schools not participating in the program.

“I think it really did show that if you offer it, kids will eat it,” said Tracy Fox, president of Washington, D.C.-based Food, Nutrition & Policy Consultants.

Fox was also encouraged about the higher level of nutrition education at participating schools.

Industry leaders were pleased the evaluation, mandated by Congress through the 2008 farm bill, confirmed what they have seen in participating schools over the past 10 years.

“We have seen with our own eyes for so many years that the program is working, so this is a pretty incredible day that what you have seen for all these years is confirmed with a comprehensive, scientific study,” said Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for the United Fresh Produce Association.

“The results clearly demonstrate that the (program) increases kids’ fruit and vegetable consumption, increasing them to a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, and it is very popular with schools and with parents and with kids,”she said.

The agency’s executive summary of the evaluation and full report are available online.

The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program began as a four-state pilot in 2002 but expanded with the 2008 farm bill to become a nationwide program. Initial funding was $40 million for the 2008 school year and increased to $150 million per year for the 2011-12 school year.

The agency said program funds are allocated at $50 to $75 per student per school year, between $1 and $2 per student per week, to schools with the highest percentage of low-income students.

For fiscal year 2013, DiSogra said program funding was near $163 million, which included some carryover funds from the previous year. The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, now in more than 7,000 U.S. schools, is not subject to mandated sequestration budget cuts. Similar funding for the program is anticipated for fiscal year 2014, DiSogra said.

Of specialty crop programs in the 2008 farm bill, DiSogra said the $1.2 billion in funding over 10 years for the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program represents a big slice of the estimated $3 billion allocation over 10 years for all specialty crop industry programs in the farm bill.

“It’s very significant for our members and our association,” she said.

In his appearance in South Dakota, Vilsack also announced that $285 million will be made available to the states for healthy eating initiatives under the SNAP: Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Program, a food stamp program. He said initiatives might include investing in farmers markets, community gardens in low-income areas, or educating retailers on how to stock healthier choices.

Tom Quaife, editor of The Packer’s sister publication “Dairy Herd Management,” contributed to this article.