(Oct. 14, 2:00 p.m.) A pending pilot program to ease U.S. Department of Agriculture purchases of fresh-cut apples for schools should open the door for more purchases of fresh-cut items, government and industry sources report.

Robert Keeney, deputy administrator for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service fruit and vegetable programs, told fruit and vegetable industry advisory committee members in September that the agency expects to launch the apple program in October or November, possibly adding other items, including fresh cut carrots, by mid-2009.

“We want to step our toe into fresh cut apples, and then look at the middle of next year for other commodities,” he said at the committee’s meeting in Washington, D.C.

Jimmie Turner, spokesman for the AMS, said in an Oct. 8 e-mail that the pilot program had not yet begun.

“Right now, there is no specific timeframe when it will launch,” Turner said in the e-mail.

Sam Burleson, director of sales for F&S Produce Co. Inc., Rosenhaven, N.J., said his fresh-cut facility will be interested in exploring the terms of the USDA pilot program.

“We aren’t participating in any school lunch purchases yet but we are looking at the opportunity in the near future,” he said.

Schools save money

Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, said USDA purchases could be a real cost-saver for schools.

“It is incredibly exciting and will have incredible impact,” DiSogra said Oct. 7. “Whenever I mention (the project) where there are school food people, they are like, ‘When is it going to start?’” DiSogra said.

Beyond fresh-cut apples, she said other commodities also have great potential, including carrots and sliced citrus.

“Kids will love the carrots and if AMS buys it though commodity purchases, it will save the schools a lot of money,” she said. DiSogra said schools are trying to buy value-added produce now, but it is relatively expensive.

DiSogra said the pilot program could lead to broader access to fresh fruits and vegetables in school lunches.

“If you gave a kid a whole carrot, you are going to get a different reaction than if you gave him a little bag of baby carrots,” she said.

Nothing will be less expensive to the schools than commodity purchases, DiSogra said, because schools typically only pay for transportation of the item to be delivered to their schools from distributors.

DiSogra noted the 2008 farm bill provided AMS with $190 million more for fruits and vegetable purchases than the previous farm bill, bringing the total annual funds in fiscal year 2008 for fruit and vegetable purchases by AMS at close to $390 million.

Fresh vs. canned, frozen

David Tuckwiller, chief of the commodity procurement branch of the Agricultural Marketing Service’s fruit and vegetable programs, told the advisory committee during an earlier meeting that fresh produce shipments for schools totaled only 9 million pounds in 2007, down from 24 million pounds in 2000. Since Sept. 2, the USDA’s Web site recording commodity purchases indicated only 7 fresh produce purchases, compared with 23 purchases of canned or frozen fruits and vegetables for use in schools.

He said the program would include school districts that already buy sliced apples and have a distribution system in place. He said then that the agency plans to buy sliced apples from processors, and the product will be shipped to distributors for allocation to schools. He said schools would pay only for delivery costs.

DiSogra said schools don’t get much money for the fruit and vegetable portion of the school lunch, which is one reason some schools use a lot of canned or frozen fruits or vegetables.

“If they can get (fresh-cut) though commodity purchases, then that’s the lowest cost to the schools,” she said.

DiSogra said she like to see the AMS spend all the new money that the agency received in the farm bill on fresh and fresh cut produce purchases for schools.

“That would be our goal, that over the next couple of years, that at least 50% of this money is going to buy fresh and fresh cut fruits and vegetables for school children, out of the commodity money,” DiSogra said.