(Feb. 15) WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to start a pilot program with fresh-cut apples in schools before the end of the school year.

The fresh-cut program would be a departure for USDA, which typically takes surplus product off the fresh market in an effort to stabilize prices. That product is often turned into frozen, canned or dried items for schools and food banks, said David Tuckwiller, chief of the commodity procurement branch of the Agricultural Marketing Service’s fruit and vegetable programs.

“We’re thrilled that they’re trying to be more responsive to schools and are providing fresh fruit through the commodity purchase program,” said Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C. “Schools are screaming for fresh. Canned stuff, a lot of times, isn’t great quality and it ends up in the garbage.”

The 2002 farm bill requires USDA to spend a minimum of $200 million on Section 32 purchases for specialty crops.

Tuckwiller, speaking at the USDA Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee’s Feb. 7 meeting, said that those purchases and other funds appropriated by the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service totaled $320 million in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30.

However, the agency shipped only 9 million pounds of fresh produce to schools last year, down from 24 million pounds in 2000.

He said the USDA — which supplies only about 15% of the food in school programs — lacks the infrastructure to move fresh produce in a timely fashion, and schools have opted to make purchases on their own or work with the Department of Defense.

Tuckwiller said that’s why the fresh-cut pilot program will involve schools that already buy sliced apples and have a distribution system in place.

The pilot program initially will be limited to schools close to processors — likely in states such as Washington, Michigan, New York and California, Tuckwiller said.

He said USDA plans to buy sliced apples from processors, and the product will be shipped to distributors. Tuckwiller said the program will offer substantial savings for schools, which will pay only for delivery from the distributor and in some cases state administration fees. The cost to USDA has not been determined because the process will be based on competitive bids.

Cashmere, Wash.-based Crunch Pak LLC’s national marketing director Tony Freytag said schools buying sliced apples directly from the company pay a 25- to 30-cent f.o.b. per 2- to 2½-ounce packages.

The costs of the fresh-cut program for schools will be somewhat similar to USDA’s fresh apple program. The agency buys truckload quantities of whole apples every year and has them delivered to state warehouses. Schools then pay for delivery.

The volume in the whole apple program dropped from 3 million pounds in fiscal 2006 to 2.4 million in fiscal 2007.

If successful, the pilot would be expanded to include more schools in the 2008-09 school year. Tuckwiller said the program could be expanded to include items such as fresh-cut carrots or oranges the following school year.

House and Senate versions of the farm bill would increase the minimum of Section 32 purchases for specialty crops to $390 million in fiscal 2008, $393 million in 2009, $399 million in 2010, $403 million in 2011 and $406 million in 2012.

Tuckwiller said how much money is spent on the fresh-cut pilot program will be dictated by demand from schools.