ANAHEIM, Calif. — U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition programs will see an explosion of investment in fruit and vegetable purchases, and the Agricultural Marketing Service is asking industry leaders to help make farm to school programs successful.

During an Oct. 2 Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit workshop, AMS Administrator Rayne Pegg also said industry leaders must consider investing more in reaching consumers with the healthy eating message.

“We’re looking at how we can educate more consumers and we’re really asking the industry and others to come to the table too,” she said.

Pegg said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has asked the fruit and vegetable industry and other commodity groups to put 5% of their marketing budget toward public service ads to educate consumers about healthy eating.

Pegg also said the USDA is concerned about “food deserts” and what can be done to bring more options to urban and isolated rural areas where food choices are limited.

“Tackling food deserts are a priority and I hope you share that priority as well,” she said.

President Obama and Vilsack want to get more fruits and vegetables into school nutrition programs, Pegg said during the workshop.

Pegg said the AMS and the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service started a farm to school program this year to provide outreach to urban and rural areas. Officials will look at potential sources of supply, what funds they might need and possible assistance from the USDA.

The USDA is refining how schools can purchase locally grown food, said workshop panelist Ron Vogel, associate administrator for Special Nutrition Programs in the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service.

He said the 2008 farm bill allowed schools to include geographic preferences for unprocessed locally grown crops.

Vogel said the USDA has been criticized for using a narrow definition of the provision, and said the department is revising that definition.

Pegg said the AMS alone plans to spend $640 million on fruits and vegetables.

She also said the USDA is moving ahead with fresh-cut purchases for school lunches.In 2009, the USDA bought sliced apples for schools in five states and by January 2010 plans to expand the program to ten states.

“We saw a few hiccups, but we saw success and great demand and we’re expanding that program,” she said. In addition, Pegg said the USDA is considering a pilot program for baby peeled carrots.

Vogel said fruit and vegetable purchases for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) should not be overlooked, and collectively, all USDA nutrition assistance programs helped drive about $11 billion of purchases of produce.

That figure will “explode” over the next several years, he said.

One reason for expected growth in fruit and vegetable purchases is their inclusion in the Women Infant and Children program, starting Oct. 1. That serves about 7.7 million participants.

The school lunch program should also see greater fruit and vegetable purchases in the years ahead, Vogel said.

Current nutrition standards call for two servings of fruits and vegetables for school lunches. That may change, because the agency has asked the Institutes of Medicine to review nutrition guidelines and that IOM report is expected by the end of October.

He said there is a good chance the IOM recommendations will look at increasing the fruit and vegetable component of school lunches.

The workshop, called “How the ‘New Washington’ can affect your business,” was moderated by Tom O’Brien, Washington, D.C., representative of the Produce Marketing Association and principal of O’Brien DC, and included Jin Ju Wilder, president of Coast Produce Co., Los Angeles, Calif., and Mark Givens, director of sales for HMC Farms, Kingsburg, Calif.

Wilder and Givens spoke about the challenges and opportunities in participating as suppliers to federal feeding programs, including “buy American” preferences for fruits and vegetables.