Leaders of the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) today welcomed the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) announcement that mothers and young children participating in the federal government’s nutrition safety-net program would soon be guaranteed greater access to fruits and vegetables for their better health.

Mothers and their children participating in the federal government’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) will soon begin receiving vouchers allowing fruit and vegetable purchases for the first time, according to an agency interim rulemaking published Dec. 6 in the Federal Register. Vouchers of $8 will be provided to each participating non-breastfeeding mother, and $6 vouchers to each child; breastfeeding moms will receive $10 vouchers. The vouchers can be used to purchase fruits and vegetables of all forms, including fresh, frozen, canned and dried; white potatoes are the only produce item that is specifically excluded. (Under the current program, only breastfeeding mothers are allowed to use vouchers to purchase vegetables, and are limited to carrots only.)

As a result of these changes, the percent of WIC vouchers devoted to purchasing fruits and vegetables will increase from 0 percent to 2.7 percent. The value of these vouchers for fruit and vegetable purchases will total $934.3 million from 2008-2012, according to the Federal Register.

“This is healthy news for our nation’s nutritionally at-risk mothers and their young children, who will now be able to enjoy more healthy, delicious fruits and vegetables without adding further to their financial worries,” said PMA Senior Vice President of Industry Products and Services Lorna Christie. “We applaud USDA for using its policies and programs to level the playing field, and to put the goals of the dietary guidelines within closer reach of this economically disadvantaged population.”

Christie noted PMA’s disappointment that USDA excluded white potatoes.

“Given how hard USDA otherwise worked to ensure that program participants would have access to a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in various forms, we’re disappointed that they would specifically exclude a popular staple like white potatoes, which is immersed in American as well as other cuisines,” said Christie.

The fruit and vegetable vouchers are one of many changes to the WIC program that are intended to bring the program closer in alignment with the latest federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans, issued in 2005. This rulemaking is the first time that the 33-year-old WIC program’s age- and nutritional needs-based “food packages” have been significantly reviewed since 1980. The program serves approximately 8.3 million low-income pregnant and lactating women, their infants and young children up to age five, providing food vouchers and other related support.

PMA and other groups and companies including the Produce for Better Health Foundation had pressed for the need to increase fruit and vegetable access to both USDA during the rulemaking process, and to an Institute of Medicine (IOM) blue-ribbon science panel that had advised USDA on needed WIC program changes. The IOM panel had advised USDA to establish vouchers of $10 for women and $8 for children; USDA reduced the amount so that the changes to the program would be cost-neutral.

Other provisions in the rulemaking that are of interest to the fruit and vegetable industry include:

-USDA opted not to mandate purchase of dark leafy green or orange vegetables, to ensure that participants have the widest access to fruits and vegetables possible, though the nutritional benefits of those particular foods will be conveyed in WIC nutrition education efforts.

-The rule gives states, which execute the WIC program at the local level, the authority to authorize farmers’ markets to accept WIC vouchers.

-Vouchers will no longer be provided to purchase juices, including fruit and vegetable juices, for infants under six months of age; instead, the agency expects that whole versions of these foods will be provided. Juice allotments for children 1-4 years of age were also reduced.

The rule can be viewed at http://a257.g.akamaitech.net/7/257/2422/01jan20071800/edocket.access.gpo.gov/2007/pdf/E7-23033.pdf. It is effective Feb. 4, 2008, and must be implemented by states not later than Aug. 5, 2009. Comments on the interim rule are due by Feb. 1, 2010.

About Produce Marketing Association (PMA) Founded in 1949, the Produce Marketing Association is the leading trade association serving more than 2,100 companies representing every segment of the global produce and floral supply chain. Members rely on PMA year round for the business solutions they need to increase sales and consumption, build strong professional relationships, and expand their business opportunities. For more information, visit www.pma.com.