(July 24) The first winners in the DeCA lottery are in, as the Defense Commissary Agency has awarded the first produce-supply contracts under its new system.

Many top produce distributors will lose out on much coveted government contracts under DeCA’s changes, as the agency begins handling all produce purchases for its 80 U.S. commissaries. The new system replaces an older model that required all produce purchases be made through the Defense Supply Center Philadelphia.

In a sense, though, the produce industry in general comes out a winner.

The federal government, which had been operating under an antiquated purchasing system, is following the lead of the private sector in setting up Web-based direct-purchasing programs and splitting up the operation by regions.

Private retailers have been using systems like that for years now. More to the point, they have proved it works. It saves on cost and time and assures fresh product reaches shelves more quickly.

The U.S. government says it buys an estimated $350 million in fresh produce yearly. To compete for a piece of this fruitful pie, produce vendors have had to think strategically, form alliances and coordinate plans to cover substantial geographic regions.

The first steps are complete, with DeCA having awarded a two-year contract worth about $32.6 million each to Kansas City, Mo.-based C&C Produce Inc., and San Antonio-based B. Catalani Inc., to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to commissaries in two regions in the central U.S.

The Norfolk, Va.-based Military Produce Group LLC won a contract worth about $72.5 million for southern Virginia; North Carolina; South Carolina; Fort Gordon, Georgia; Keflavik, Iceland; and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. DeCA has yet to award other contracts. But the first winners give also-rans something to shoot for, when contracts come up for renewal.

In a high-stakes game like this, somebody has to lose. But the process can be edifying, certainly enough to serve as building blocks for future bidders. Perhaps more important, it has given the government more than a casual glimpse of what private businesses can do to be more efficient and responsive.

For that, the produce industry at large deserves high praise.