(March 4) The fruit and vegetable pilot program is on a fast track to expansion.

Child nutrition reauthorization legislation introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives March 3 would expand the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s fruit and vegetable pilot program to eight states and two Indian reservations.

The original pilot, passed by the 2002 farm bill, funded 106 schools in four states and one Indian reservation.

The legislation, H.R. 3873, is expected to advance through the House by mid-March, and the Senate was expected to mark up its version of the bill by later in the month.

The legislative authority for child nutrition reauthorization runs out by the end of March, so Congress will have to pass child nutrition legislation by then or pass a short-term extension of programs.

Tom Stenzel, president of the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, said he was pleased the House bill expanded the pilot — particularly considering the tight U.S. budget outlook.

“They are devoting $50 million to the pilot expansion over five years, or $10 million a year,” he said.

While Stenzel said United wants the pilot in all 50 states and will continue to work for that, he said the pilot program is perhaps the only item in the child nutrition bill that would receive new money.

Tracy Fox, nutrition consultant representing the Wilmington, Del.-based Produce for Better Health Foundation, also said her organization was pleased with the program’s progress.

Industry lobbyists said the Senate is expected to be friendly to the pilot program, considering that the program had its genesis with Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

Both Harkin, ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and chairman of the committee, funded their own states at $1 million each to continue the fruit and vegetable pilot in the omnibus spending bill passed by the Congress in January.

Fox said the only question on the pilot’s future is whether some members of Congress will resist funding the program out of Section 32, which is a fund typically used for USDA surplus commodity purchases.

The House bill, introduced by Mike Castle, R-Del., is titled the Child Nutrition Improvement and Integrity Act. Besides expanding the pilot program the bill also:

  • Provides grants to states and local entities to promote the consumption of fruits and vegetables, including the establishment of fresh salad and fruit bars in schools.

  • Provides nutrition education funding to states to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables through education at schools.

  • Amends the School Lunch Act to allow special emphasis of fruits and vegetables under the USDA’s Commodity Distribution and Purchase programs.