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WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to expand the fresh-cut apple pilot program to more states and test baby carrots after working out the kinks of its successful pilot project.

From March 27 to June 30, USDA worked with vendors who helped deliver fresh-cut apple slices to kids in school districts in California, Michigan, North Carolina, New York and Pennsylvania. USDA purchased more than 3 million pounds of fresh-cut apple slices in two-ounce bags in an attempt to boost fresh fruit consumption with more convenient packages.

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

After a rocky start during the bidding process, AMS awarded contracts to apple vendors on March 24. The companies that participated in this year's pilot program were Farmington Fresh Sales LLC, Fresh Innovations, Global Purveyors LLC, Peterson Farms Inc. and HMC Group Marketing Inc.

"We usually purchase canned and frozen foods that can be stored for months on end," said Ron Ulibarri, administrative supervisor at AMS' Commodity Procurement Branch.

But fresh-cut apple slices with a 14-day shelf life posed a new challenge, he told The Produce News.

First, the pilot program had to work out the quantity of apple slices schools could use in a reasonable period of time before the product would spoil. Instead of a truckload of commodities, AMS opted for 100 cases at a time to draw down, he said. Vendors were not paid until schools used up their 100 cases, he explained.

The program demanded close communication between the vendor and the distributor. Vendors would need to make regular contract with distributors to make sure they could slot their product, he said. Fresh-cut apple slices need to be in cold storage and moved quickly, said Mr. Ulibarri. "It takes a lot of coordination."

But the coordination appears to have paid off for schools participating in the pilot program.

"It's one of the best things that USDA has done," said Pavel Matustik, chief administrative officer of the Santa Clara Valley School Food Services Agency near Los Angeles. "It's wonderful because the kids love it, it's well-spent money, it's healthy and it helps our program."

The next step is to expand the fresh-cut apple pilot to five more states from January until June 2010.

"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," said Mr. Keeney.