(Jan. 9, 12:44 p.m.) More than 500,000 participants in the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program will receive vouchers to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables in the next few weeks.

“This is very exciting for all of us who have worked so hard on it for so long. It is finally real,” said Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.

“This will start translating to sales in produce departments,” DiSogra said.

New York and Delaware launched fruit and vegetable vouchers for the WIC program on Jan. 2. The vouchers are a change in WIC food packages that was unveiled in December 2007 and is being phased in this year. All states must offer the vouchers by Oct. 1.

Under the new guidelines — the first change in the WIC food program in more than three decades — WIC participants receive a fruit and vegetable voucher for $8 a month, and their children can receive a voucher for $6 a month. WIC breastfeeding mothers receive a voucher for $10 a month.

Other changes in the food packages are reductions in milk, juice, eggs and cheese and availability of whole grain cereals, canned or dried beans and baby foods in jars.

An original estimate of the industry’s benefit from the fruit and vegetable vouchers was $500 million, but DiSogra said that number is higher now.

“The benefit to the industry is getting bigger all the time because the caseload for WIC is growing,” DiSogra said. There are more than 9 million WIC participants currently, up from 8.3 million in 2007.

“My guess is the industry benefit is approaching $600 million,” she said Jan. 7.

DiSogra said New York and Delaware are apparently the first to incorporate fruit and vegetable vouchers in state WIC programs.

She said New York will provide fruit and vegetable vouchers to participants for three months at a time, which would translate to a typical value of about $42 for a parent and child.

“There are a few other states trying to launch late winter or spring, but the majority of states will launch at the absolute deadline,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is accepting comments on the WIC program until February 2010, DiSogra said.

Fresh potatoes are excluded from the WIC food packages, though industry officials are working to change that.