Over the past couple of weeks, we have seen clear signs that the produce industry’s leadership in nutrition policy and our advocacy to increase fruit and vegetable consumption to improve nutrition is paying off.

We’ve seen the fruit and vegetable purchasing power of WIC families increase to about $1 billion per year and new research that shows that kids are eating more fruits and vegetables now that healthier school lunch standards are in place.

These milestones, along with others, mark truly significant progress in our goal of a healthier America through increased fruit and vegetable consumption.

We’ve made real progress in adding more fruits and vegetables to the WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) food package, but it has taken considerable time.

Since it was created in 1974, WIC has provided nutritional assistance to low-income pregnant and breastfeeding women and their infants and children. Unfortunately, fruits and vegetables weren’t originally included in the WIC food package. Adding fresh produce to WIC seemed a logical way to improve the overall quality of WIC foods, but the gears move slowly in Washington, D.C.

For more than a decade, United Fresh and its members have played a leadership role in urging USDA to update WIC foods to include fruits and vegetables.  

Time for a change

The Institute of Medicine’s 2005 report “WIC Foods: Time for A Change” provided scientific recommendations to USDA that included adding a wide variety of fruits and vegetables to WIC. United and the National WIC Association provided USDA with examples and research to demonstrate that adding fruits and vegetables to WIC would work. In 2009, regulations that added fruit and vegetable vouchers to WIC went into effect.

For the last several years we have continued to work closely with the WIC association and others to advocate for increasing the value of fruit and vegetable vouchers for 4.6 million WIC children.  

Success became official Feb. 28 when USDA published the Final Rule on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children: Revisions to the WIC Food Package.

The rule increases the cash value of the  fruit and vegetable vouchers for children to $8 per month. It also allows WIC mothers to receive a voucher for fresh fruits and vegetables instead of jarred baby food for their older infants.

Plus, it permits WIC moms to add cash at check out to their fruit and vegetable vouchers to maximize their fruit and vegetable purchases. The goal of all of these improvements is to increase fruit and vegetable consumption among young children.

All these WIC fruit and vegetable vouchers add up: The most recent numbers show the total value of these fruit and vegetable vouchers for women and children approaches $1 billion.  

That’s a lot of purchasing power for fresh produce!

While we are encouraged that these new WIC packages will increase consumption of fresh produce, we remain disappointed that USDA chose to exclude white potatoes from the fruit and vegetable voucher program. We continue to advocate that WIC vouchers should include all fresh fruits and vegetables.      

Much credit goes to the Obama Administration for their support in increasing WIC children’s fruit and vegetable voucher to $8 a month, a value that the Institute of Medicine recommended back in 2005.

Produce education

First lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative celebrates its fourth anniversary this month, and we are very proud to be a founding partner of Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools, which has placed salad bars in more than 3,300 schools, with more on the way.

There’s also good news about school nutrition. Just last week, a Harvard study showed that healthier school lunch standards result in student’s selecting and consuming more fruits and vegetables and that healthier nutrition standards have not increased plate waste.

This study estimates 32 million U.S. students eat school meals every day. It’s the first to examine the impact of new school meal standards, which took effect in the 2012-13 school year.

Sure, these and other victories have taken time, but we’re making real progress. We are firmly committed to advocating for greater access to fruits and vegetables for the very young (WIC) and children (school meals) because they are our future consumers.

Together, the WIC and school meal victories help ensure that kids have greater access to fresh produce during their most important years.Every time a child samples a new fruit or vegetable for the first time, that sampling helps them develop healthier eating habits that can last a lifetime.

While this work has required diligence and patience, the stars are indeed aligning for increased consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and the healthful nutrition of Americans.

March is National Nutrition Month, so I hope you’ll join members and staff of United Fresh in celebrating this remarkable progress and remain dedicated to the work and success still ahead.

Lorelei DiSogra is vice president of nutrition and health for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.