(Feb. 19, STAFF EDITORIAL) Kids will eat fruits and vegetables as long as they’re of good quality, which usually means fresh.

Marketers and producers have been saying that for years, and now the U.S. Department of Agriculture is starting to implement it.

The USDA plans to start a pilot program with fresh-cut apples before the end of this school year, representing a fresh change from its policy of taking lower-quality product from the fresh market and turning it into processed for schools and food banks (See Story, A1, in The Packer's Feb. 18 print or digital edition).

The USDA has done a poor job recently providing top-quality produce to schools. In fact, the department shipped only 9 million pounds of fresh produce to schools in 2007, down from 24 million pounds in 2000.

Schools in select states will get the fresh-cut apples.

The pilot program involves schools already receiving sliced apples and have a distribution system in place, the USDA said, and the schools must be near processors — most likely in major apple producing states, such as Washington, Michigan, New York and California.

But the program could expand to include more schools next school year and more items such as fresh-cut carrots or oranges in future years, the USDA said.

Improving obesity rates, and increasing fresh produce consumption, have to start somewhere. The idea of getting fresh-cut apples in schools is a strong investment and hopefully the start of a bigger commitment.