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WASHINGTON -- Health and nutrition advocates, along with moms and dads, want more fresh fruits and vegetables in the diets of school children, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has established a program to support that trend.

In March, USDA introduced a pilot program to school districts in five states -- California, Michigan, North Carolina, New York and Pennsylvania -- that provided students with fresh-cut apple slices. Apples were processed and packaged into single-serve, two-ounce bags, similar to those found in children's meals at major fast-food restaurants.

Unlike restaurants, many schools have little or no storage and refrigerated space for fresh fruits and vegetables. The challenge facing USDA was to align suppliers and distributors and deliver product on a just-in-time basis. Once that hurdle was cleared, the program was off and running.

"From the feedback we've received, the fresh-cut pilot program is a tremendous achievement and extraordinarily popular with the schools," Robert C. Keeney, deputy administrator for AMS's Fruit & Vegetable Programs, said in a Sept. 17 press release.

Pavel Matustik, chief administrative officer of the Santa Clara Valley School Food Services Agency near Los Angeles, added, "It's one of the best things that USDA has done. It's wonderful because the kids love it, it's well-spent money, it's healthy and it helps our program. There is no negative."

Added Mr. Keeney, "Because of that success, we're planning to expand the program to more states in the upcoming school year. Additionally, we've been involved in discussions with the Food & Nutrition Service and industry experts to introduce baby carrots during the 2009-10 school year."