The Packer’s National Editor Tom Karst chatted on March 23 with Kevin Concannon, U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services.

1:15 p.m. Tom Karst: Thanks for taking time (for a chat). I wanted to get your thoughts about the USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. It sounds like the industry will be excited to hear about the funding increase ($110 million for 2010-11 to $158 million for 2011-12) that was part of the 2008 farm bill. That’s quite a chunk of money for the program.

Q&A | Kevin Concannon, USDA

Concannon

1:16 p.m. Kevin Concannon: It really is. It is really a most welcome increase. As you know, for the next school (year), the USDA will be able to provide $158 million for the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. That program serves in excess of 5,000 elementary schools across the country that have large or significant numbers of low income children.

1:17 p.m. Karst: What kind of reaction do you get from school officials about the program?

1:17 p.m. Concannon: I was recently in an elementary school in San Francisco which had 80% of the kids in that school were free and reduced priced (lunch) kids based on family income. Both the principal of the school and the folks from the county health department pointed out to me the importance of the Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program to those children. That school, like others I have seen throughout the country, provides fresh fruits and vegetables to the kids mid-morning as a healthy snack. I’ve heard nothing but the highest praise for the program from school teachers, the school nutrition folks and the school nurses. A number of places have given me examples saying (the program) is how we educate children — children from largely low income households — where fruits and vegetables come from. We also know from our experience that to the extent you can expose kids to fresh produce and educate them, they will bring some of that back home.

1:26 p.m. Karst: What else has been keeping you busy lately?

1:26 p.m. Concannon: We were up in Massachusetts in the early part of the day. We have underway up there a national experiment on how to create incentives in the SNAP program, the food stamp program for families in SNAP to purchase more fruits and vegetables. And that’s our Healthy Incentives Pilot, it is a $20 million project that was authorized in the last farm bill, and the area of the country in which that national study will be taking place is in western Massachusetts. One group of 6,500 SNAP recipients will be matched with an experimental group of 6,500 SNAP recipients. The experimental group will receive, when they use their SNAP benefits to buy fruits and vegetables, they will be able to receive up to, depending on household size, up to $60 additional per month based on how much they spend on fruits and vegetables. The intent of that study is to determine, for national policy, are there ways we can create incentives for Americans — particularly low income Americans in the SNAP program — to buy and purchase and consume more fruits and vegetables, which is a good thing.