(Jan. 8) With thousands of comments to sort through, the U.S. Department of Agriculture expects to publish the interim final rule on changes to food packages for the Women Infants and Children program by September, USDA documents show.

The USDA’s expectation was revealed in the agency’s agenda for 2007, which was published in December’s Federal Register.

The proposed rule would revise WIC food packages to align them with the 2005 Dietary Guidelines. Published Aug. 7, the proposed rule’s comment period ended Nov. 6.

The rule would provide for a cash voucher of $8 per month for mothers and $6 per month for children for fruit and vegetables purchases. At the same time, the rule would reduce some egg, dairy and fruit juice elements of WIC food packages.

Produce and nutrition advocates met Dec. 21 with Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns and Nancy Montanez-Johner, the USDA undersecretary for food nutrition and consumer services, said Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C. DiSogra was among those who met with Johanns at his office.

The USDA has received more than 56,000 comments on the proposed rule to add fruit and vegetable vouchers to the WIC food packages, Johanns told the group.

Besides DiSogra, the meeting included representatives from several Washington, D.C.-based groups, including the National WIC Association, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Food Research and Action Council. Lee Mannering, Produce Marketing Association government relations manager, also attended, DiSogra said.

DiSogra said Douglas Greenaway, executive director of the National WIC Association, told Johanns nutrition advocates can live with the September date, even though lobbyists were hoping for a spring or summer final rule.

But Greenaway stressed to Johanns that the USDA must not put off the rule beyond September, or leave the rule to next administration.

Johanns told the nutrition advocates he has seen plenty of people in his office that oppose the rule. He urged the produce advocates to “stay engaged” in their support of the rule.