(Nov. 21) Almost three million pounds of fresh cut apples will find their way to school lunches and other feeding programs this winter under a new pilot program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The agency is planning to purchase 2.9 million pounds of fresh cut apple slices in 2-ounce bags for donation to child nutrition and other nutrition assistance programs, according to a Nov. 19 USDA news release.

Tony Freytag, marketing director of sliced apple marketer Crunch Pak, Cashmere, Wash., said he was anxious to see the results of the first invitation to bid from the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, which he said closed on Nov. 14. That invitation called for fresh-cut apple deliveries mostly from late November through the end of February.

“We bid on it through some others (brokers and distributors),” he said.

Eventually, Crunch Pak expects to be a direct bidder and supplier for the USDA business.

He noted there was no stipulation from the USDA about branding of the 2-ounce package.

“Anything we do will be branded,” Freytag said.

He expected the terms of the bid — deliveries to receivers in a range of geographic locations — will result in a variety of West and East Coast processors receiving business. He said the USDA was expected to announce the results of the first bid by Nov. 21.

Freytag said no matter what the results, he is encouraged that the USDA is purchasing sliced apples.

“Overall, it is good for the industry and it will raise awareness and consumption of sliced apples,” he said. “It puts a lot of sliced apples into the hands of kids. That’s a great thing.”

Freytag said the USDA requires 2-ounce packages of sliced apples, packaged in cases of 64, 100 and 200 units.

The USDA is asking for 176,000 cartons of 100-count packages, 27,400 cases of 200-count cases and 500 cases of 64-count cases. Together, that equals about 2.9 million pounds.

“There are only so many processors that could have bid on it, because there is not that many of us who can handle those kinds of volumes over a very short period of time,” Freytag said.

Because crop prices have been changing with expectations of a larger than expected crop in Washington, Freytag said it will be interesting to see how aggressive the bids were.

The agency said in the release that the pilot program will test the feasibility and cost effectiveness of using single-serving “convenience” packs in nutrition assistance programs. The agency also noted that the 2008 farm bill provided an additional $193 million in fiscal year 2009 for purchase of fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts for use in domestic feeding programs.

Bob Keeney, deputy administrator for the USDA's AMS fruit and vegetable programs, said the USDA will examine the success of the first invitation to bid before deciding to initiate further purchases of fresh sliced apples or other fresh-cut processed items.

“It won’t be that far in the future,” he said. “We believe it will be a success and move from that, if it is successful, to purchase other fresh-cut items.”

AMS officials have previously indicated that fresh-cut carrots will also be considered for purchase after the fresh-cut apple purchases begin. AMS purchases only products of 100% domestic origin, according to the release.