The fresh produce industry’s hard work over a long period of time paid dividends in 2009, so much so that the expanded role of fresh produce on school menus and in the Women, Infant and Children feeding program vaulted into the No. 5 position in this year’s countdown of top news stories.

October brought great news for the industry when fruit and vegetable vouchers for moms participating in WIC enjoyed a $2 per month boost from Congress.

#5 story of 2009: Congress increases WIC produce, school meal program funds

Congress passed the fiscal 2010 agricultural appropriations bill in mid-October with an increase of $2 per month for the fruit and vegetable voucher received by 1.6 million moms in the program.

“We’re really excited that we were able to get that increase in value in the vouchers for women, but we remain fully engaged in urging the Obama administration to find a way to increase the value of the children’s fruit and vegetable vouchers, which reach 4.7 million kids,” said Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C.

WIC fruit and vegetable vouchers — initially set at $8 per month for moms and $6 per month for children — became a part of food packages in all 50 states on Oct. 1.

The new benefit will be worth an additional $41 million in additional fruit and vegetable purchases during fiscal 2010, according to United Fresh.

DiSogra said legislation addressing child nutrition programs is expected to be considered early next year.

Legislation extending child nutrition programs through Sept. 30 was approved by Congress, but DiSogra said it is likely Congress will want to look at completing work on that legislation early in 2010.

After more than a decade of negotiation, fruits and vegetables became eligible across the board for WIC on Oct. 1.

“We’ve waited a long time for this,” DiSogra said. “It’s a huge win for fruits and vegetables because we’re finally part of the package.”

The industry sees opportunity for an increase in overall consumption, said Bil Goldfield, communications manager for Dole Food Co., Westlake Village, Calif. It makes sense for fresh produce to be part of the program.

“By broadening the offerings in the program, we expect to see WIC moms purchase a wide variety of nutrient dense fresh produce items from across the industry, and increase their overall consumption of fruits and vegetables.”

In June, WIC recipients could start shopping farmers markets in New York.

“Making farmers market produce available to WIC recipients is good for New York’s families and New York’s farmers,” said Gov. David Paterson, in a news release.

“There are not enough healthy food options in many urban and rural communities throughout the state, and that lack of affordable, nutritious food is hurting the health of New Yorkers.”

Food markets

The effort went along with New York’s Healthy Food/Healthy Communities initiative, which aims to expand access to fresh, nutritious food in underserved communities.

The initiative created $10 million in revolving loans to fund construction of food markets in underserved communities.

In March, Sesame Workshop formed a partnership with WIC, as Cookie Monster, Big Bird and other Sesame Street characters became employed to help get the word out about fresh fruits and vegetables being a new WIC option.

Also in March, revealing an interest in boosting the federal feeding programs and food safety oversight, the White House fiscal 2010 budget proposed a $1 billion per year increase for child nutrition programs and a similar increase for food safety oversight efforts.

The White House said the budget supports a strong child nutrition and Women, Infants and Children reauthorization package that will help keep President Obama’s promise to end childhood hunger by 2015.

The White House said the budget provides an increase of $1 billion annually to improve access to, and nutritional value of, school meals.

Another provision supports 9.8 million participants in the WIC nutrition assistance program, up from about 8.7 million in fiscal 2008.

In January, two states started issuing WIC produce vouchers to more than 500,000 WIC participants in New York and Delaware.