(Dec. 10) Fresh fruit and vegetable marketers stand to reap big benefits through the Women, Infants and Children program, which has more than 8 million participants, if a proposed change opens access to the program.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will receive comments on the proposal through Feb. 4. It would add new foods including fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

The rule states WIC moms would receive a fruit and vegetable voucher for $8 a month, while WIC children would receive a voucher for $6 a month. WIC breastfeeding mothers would receive a voucher for $10 a month.

In making the announcement about the rule, published Dec. 6, acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner said the changes were the first in nearly three decades.

The WIC program had a budget of more than $5 billion in fiscal 2006, and an estimate from the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association puts the potential value of fruit and vegetables in the program at close to $500 million per year. No estimate was made by United Fresh concerning what share fresh produce would account for of voucher purchases compared with processed fruits and vegetables.

LESS MILK, CHEESE

The USDA plans to reduce allocations for milk, juice, eggs and cheese. Despite pleas from the produce industry and WIC advocates, the agency plans to exclude white potatoes from the vouchers, suggesting that the consumption of starchy vegetables meets or exceeds dietary guidelines already.

State WIC agencies must implement the provisions of the rule no later than Aug. 5, 2009, but they can implement them sooner.

Calling the revisions a “landmark event,” Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for United Fresh, said the group has been working on the issue since the Clinton administration.

DiSogra said 40,000 of 46,000 comments the USDA received on the rule support the addition of fruits and vegetables.

“It’s an exciting day,” said Elizabeth Pivonka, president of the Wilmington, Del.-based Produce for Better Health Foundation. “These are the most important nutrition policy changes since the 2005 dietary guidelines, and this policy will have a more immediate impact at increasing sales and consumption of fruits and vegetables. This is just huge.”

Noting the vouchers would provide WIC participants flexibility to purchase fresh and processed fruits and vegetables, Pivonka said consumers are likely to look for the best seasonal value and convenience with the money they have to spend.

WHITE POTATOES OUT

White potatoes are not included in the proposal. Many in the potato industry wrote to the USDA objecting to the exclusion of white potatoes from the WIC food packages, said Donald Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board, Presque Isle, Maine.

He said white potatoes have no sustentative differences from other types of potatoes and are a staple for much of the country.

John Keeling, executive vice president of the National Potato Council, Washington, D.C., said excluding white potatoes doesn’t make sense.

“You are talking about fresh potatoes. You are talking about products with a high nutritional value that are a good value for all consumers but certainly a good value for low-income consumers” he said.

Keeling said the council will continue to seek the inclusion of white potatoes.

Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for United Fresh, said the association would continue to advocate that the voucher be open to all fruits and vegetables.