(March 25) Reports of the fruit and vegetable pilot program’s demise were premature, but it’s not out of the woods yet.

After funding questions nearly deleted the program in mid-March, the much praised pilot program was included in the child nutrition bill H.R. 3873 that passed by the House of Representatives March 24, and funding was authorized up to $11 million for fiscal 2005.

Congress heard from hundreds of individuals expressing support for the pilot program, said Robert Guenther, vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Washington, D.C.

In fact, in a United news release March 24, he called it one of the most effective grass-roots efforts United has experienced.

The language for the bill was open-ended in the number of states that might participate in the pilot, and it added a wrinkle inviting more industry involvement in the program.

Funding for the program is discretionary, not mandatory — meaning that nothing is secured yet in terms of how many states the pilot might cover and how much money will be devoted to it.

Backers of the pilot program had attempted to secure mandatory funding from Section 32 — funds reserved, among other uses, for commodity purchases for the school lunch program.

Pilot program advocates say lobbying work needs to continue with agriculture appropriation committees, where programs with discretionary funding will compete for dollars.

Meanwhile, the Senate version of the child nutrition bill also is expected to contain a provision for the fruit and vegetable pilot program.

The Senate is expected to pass its version of the child nutrition bill in April, so a short-term extension to reauthorize existing nutrition programs is expected to be passed by Congress before the end of March. Authorization for current programs expires at the end of March.

Derek Miller, legislative aide to Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said the final reckoning for the pilot program will depend largely on the amount of money available to agriculture in both the House and Senate budget resolutions, which were being shaped in late March.

“Given the federal budget, everything will be a struggle,” Miller said..

Harkin helped create the original pilot program in the 2002 farm bill. In that legislation, the pilot was funded at $6 million to dis-tribute free produce to students in 106 schools in four states and one Indian reservation.

Keira Franz, director of legislative affairs for United, said the funding for the new pilot will be decided in fiscal 2005 appropriation bills. Those are expected to be hammered out this summer.

INDUSTRY INVOLVEMENT

One provision of the House bill calls for schools that apply for the pilot program to show an implementation plan “that includes a partnership with an entity or entities of the fruit and vegetable industry, which shall contribute not less than 15%, in cash or in kind, for the acquisition, handling, promotion and distribution of fresh and dried fruits and fresh vegetables provided under the program.”

Franz said industry support could include promotional materials from the Produce for Better Health Foundation or perhaps efforts from commodity boards or individual marketers.

“It could be anything. Perhaps from cutting the fruit before it is delivered, to providing educational 5 a Day materials or commodity-specific information,” she said.

The language of the bill also states that the majority of additional schools added to the pilot should be from schools where at least 50% of the children are eligible for free or reduced price meals.

Given the broad support for the pilot, Franz said United is confident that congressionalagriculture appropriators will include funding for the pilot.

She noted the child nutrition bill also asks the USDA for more inclusion of fruits and vegetable in commodity purchases. In addition, provisions in the bill provide grants to states and local entities to promote the consumption of fruits and vegetables through the establishment of fresh salad and fruit bars in schools.

Franz said the child nutrition bill also calls on the USDA to revise the Women Infants and Children food package soon after the agency receives a report from the Institutes of Medicine on the issue.

United and other lobbyists have been working for years to modify the WIC food package to include more fresh produce. Franz said that Institutes of Medicine report is due in February.