(Sept. 24, 10:00 a.m.) McALLEN, Texas — Increased funding for two U.S. Department of Agriculture feeding efforts — the Women, Infants and Children program and the fruit and vegetable snack program — offers Texas grower-shippers a big opportunity to influence the dining habits and health of young Texans — and a big opportunity to boost their sales.

WIC funds

It took 34 years to make fresh fruits and vegetables eligible under WIC, said Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, during the Sept. 20 workshop “New Opportunities to Market Texas Produce” at the Texas Produce Association’s annual convention.

Eligible lower-income mothers now can receive an $8 monthly voucher for produce purchases and children a $6 voucher. Mothers who breastfeed can get $10 vouchers.

In Texas, 940,000 mothers and children participate in WIC and another 75,000 are eligible, DiSogra said, adding that 60% of Texas newborns are in the program.

In 2007 (before produce was included in WIC), $574 million was spent on food in Texas through the program, DiSogra said.

Snack program

Texas stands to receive the second-highest amount of funding of any state — more than $2 million — for the 2008-09 school year under the fruit and vegetable snack program, DiSogra said.

That funding level will more than triple, to $6.2 million, in the 2011-12 school year, she said.

The snack program, which targets elementary schools in lower-income districts, will involve 85 Texas schools this year, expanding to 255 in three years, she said.

The USDA specifies that 90% of the snack funds be used for purchases rather than covering associated costs. In Texas, however, 100% of the money will buy produce, and the Texas Department of Agriculture will cover associated costs, said workshop presenter Robin Roark, nutrition and education director for operations.

Challenges to overcome

The effort faces hurdles despite support at the state and federal level, Roark said, mentioning menu planning, the bidding process, deliveries and storage issues, adding that grower-shippers can help districts overcome these challenges.

“You have opportunities, but you’ll have to do leg work,” he said.

Jim Hoffmann, a citrus grower based in Edinburg, mentioned packaging issues as a consideration, saying that if rules required certain sizes or types of packs, retooling costs could prove prohibitive.

Others in the audience questioned what assurance there was the increased availability of fruits and vegetables wouldn’t just go to waste, saying children in their families reported a lot produce going from lunch trays into the trash.

Roark agreed that presentation is important and that items should be ready to eat.

DiSogra said value-added fruits and vegetables — including items such as party trays — are eligible for the snack program.

Ray Prewett, president of Mission-based Texas Citrus Mutual, said improvements in vending machine technology have potential for fruit and vegetable snacks too.

Federal feeding programs open door to Texas crops
Jim Hoffmann, an Edinburg, Texas-based citrus grower, talks with Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, on Sept. 20 before a Texas Produce Convention workshop discussing marketing opportunities made possible under the farm bill’s funding for the fruit and vegetable snack program in schools.