( Tom Stenzel photo courtesy United Fresh Produce Association | Graphic by Amelia Freidline )

This column originally appeared in The Packer's Nov. 7, 2011 issue. United Fresh Produce Association president and CEO Tom Stenzel still gives Halloween trick-or-treaters the choice of fresh fruit and vegetable treats or candy, and over the past eight years kids have leaned toward the fresh options. Stenzel also challenges all of United Fresh's staff each year to follow his example and offer a fresh treat to kids. 

So, what'll be in your treat bucket this year? 

This past week, most Americans celebrated the consummate holiday devoted to candy and sweets — Halloween.   

My pal Larry Graham, who runs the National Confectioners Association here in Washington, D.C., relishes this annual celebration for his industry — sales of "fun-sized" candy increased 334% from September to October.   

But this year, I decided to take a lesson from another friend, Dan'l Mackey Almy of DMA Solutions in Irving, Texas, who shared the idea of giving out fresh fruits and vegetables to trick-or-treaters.

My daughter and I developed a little contest, replete with scorecards and no cheating allowed, to monitor how many kids dove into the bowl of Snickers and Reese's, and how many chose from a separate bowl with packs of fresh sliced apples or baby carrots.   

To be fair, we presented both bowls simultaneously to all comers, and said "take as much as you'd like."   

I have to admit I was a little nervous, and the grandparents in town thought I was in over my head.

But by the end of the night, the survey was running about 60% to 40% for the candy bowl, a very respectable showing, I think.   

And then a little boy rang the bell, looked at both bowls, and let out an excited gasp — "Oh boy, my favorite!"   

Of course I was starting to write down another score for the candy bowl when he said, "I love apples, and look, carrots too!"   

Taking two handfuls of each, he scampered down the porch leaving me with a story I just had to tell.

Salad bar none

Fast-forward to Tevis Junior High School in Bakersfield, Calif., where I had the chance to join in a celebration of two new salad bars donated by Sun World last week.

After a brief set of speeches that about 200 kids endured, they lit up when it was time for lunch. I couldn't count everyone, but I'm guessing 90% of the kids chose the salad bar lunch line over the regular hot lunch that day. It was spectacular, I have to say, with a wide array of great fresh fruits and veggies.

Sun World chief executive officer Al Vangelos and I were finishing up our lunch with the kids when I saw a boy shyly walking our way. He asked me who was the man from Sun World, and I pointed across the table.   

He turned to Al and said, "Mister, thank you. That salad bar was the best lunch ever."   

This kid rocked my world just like the trick-or-treater.

I share those stories because sometimes you have to see what change means in person, with one individual, to grasp the significance of our industry's broad public policy efforts. Just a few weeks ago, USDA came out with a new study of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable School Snack Program. You know the program — started as a pilot in the 2002 farm bill and slowly expanded until we broke through in 2008 as a national program that now serves 4 million elementary school kids a free fruit or veggie snack every day. We celebrated the 10th anniversary with program founder Sen. Tom Harkin at this year's Washington Public Policy Conference.

The evidence shows that millions of kids are making new choices for fresh fruits and vegetables, but sometimes a single kid makes it all real. 

The new study from USDA measured an increase of 15% in consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables by children at schools with the program.   That's a huge validation of a program that is making a real difference in kids' lives, and, I submit, to the future of the fresh produce industry.   

This independent evaluation will be critical in showing Congress the effectiveness of this program in reaching kids and exposing them to a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. So, I'll be carrying this report around with me on Capitol Hill to share the scientific data about increased consumption rates, the cost-benefit of investment now to reduce future health care costs, and all that other policy stuff that we talk about.

But I'll also be taking a story of a trick-or-treater this year in Alexandria, Va., and a boy at a salad bar in Bakersfield. The evidence shows that millions of kids are making new choices for fresh fruits and vegetables, but sometimes a single kid makes it all real. 

I invite each of you to find a school in your area that has a salad bar, or is participating in the fresh fruit and vegetable snack program. Give us a call and we'll point you in the right direction.

Then, after you've seen the dramatic impact of what's happening for yourself, join the campaign and donate a salad bar to a school in need, volunteer in your community to support programs that bring fresh fruits and vegetables to kids, and lobby your local school board, county, state government and representatives in Congress to support fruits and vegetables for kids.

If you do that, next Halloween, I'm counting on a 60% to 40% win for fresh fruits and veggies.

Tom Stenzel is president and chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.