(March 26, 8:45 a.m.) Participants in the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program could buy up to $600 million in fruit and vegetables, but the actual net increase generated by the program would probably be less than $150 million, according to a study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The offset, according to the USDA Economic Research study, is because many of the foods would have been purchased even without the program, the report said.

While the study, released in March, was based on 8 million participants, current participation is now about 9.1 million, said Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.

“What’s important here, as the WIC caseload has gone up, how that translates to the benefit of the industry,” she said.

DiSogra said President Obama’s budget has provided for funding for an estimated 9.8 million WIC participants in fiscal 2010.

“This ERS study clearly illustrates how federal policy victories can result in increased produce sales,” she said.

Although all states have not yet implemented the WIC revision adding fresh produce, the study assumes that all states have already implemented the changes for fiscal 2008. WIC now has an $8-per-month fruit and vegetable voucher for mothers, a $6-per-month voucher for children and a $10-per-month voucher for nursing mothers.

“The industry is not going to see the full value of the food package until fiscal year 2010,” DiSogra said.

More than 500,000 WIC participants in New York and Delaware receive the vouchers, she said.

DiSogra said New York officials have indicated early success with the fruit and vegetable vouchers, with a redemption rate estimated near 90%, about 70% of which have been used for fresh produce, she said.

“They have said the program is operating very, very well in all retail environments and the retailers seem very pleased,” she said.

Despite reductions in dairy allocations under new WIC guidelines, the ERS said dairy farms still will receive the most revenue from the program, with retail sales estimated near $1 billion and farm sales at $569 million.

Fruit and vegetable growers rank second, with $292 million in farm revenue and about $600 million in retail sales.

The study said that $1.3 billion in farm revenue does not represent the net gain from the revised WIC rules.

“That is, without the program, the people now participating in WIC would have purchased some of these foods with their own money,” the study said.

The report set actual gains to the industry at 26% of overall estimated sales. That figure is a conservative estimate based on studies of how people use food stamp benefits, according to the study. Other studies show that food stamp benefits result in an increase in food spending between 19 cents and 69 cents for every dollar in the program.

Based on that estimate, the USDA said that add-on retail sales in fiscal year 2008 would have been nearly $1.2 billion, or 26% of the $4.6 billion in retail WIC sales.

That translates to a net addition to farmers’ revenues of $331 million, of which $184 million would go to livestock farms and $147 million would go to crop farms — mostly fruit and vegetable farms.