An extra $8 or $10 a month for fruits and vegetables may not seem like a lot, but when all participants of the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children are counted, it adds up to more than $750 million a year.

And that $750 million is just the start.

WIC programs across the country added cash value vouchers for fruits and vegetables in October. Pregnant and breastfeeding mothers receive up to $10 a month and each child receives $6. According to WIC, about 9.3 million people received benefits in 2009.

This is a great opportunity for the fresh produce industry, says Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.

“This is going to result in a lot of additional produce sales,” she says. “There is a big opportunity for produce guys to really maximize WIC benefits for these participants.”

Many of these shoppers did not frequent the produce department before receiving these vouchers, says Anthony Barieri, director of produce for Malvern, Pa.-based Acme Markets Inc.

“We look at it as an opportunity,” he says. “That’s another $6 or $10 in new found business for us. They have to spend it or they lose it.”

Most shoppers, he says, were sticking to their lists of WIC-approved items, including fruit juice, baby formula and peanut butter. Any discretionary income on top of the WIC vouchers likely didn’t make it to the produce department.

“We probably had a minimal penetration around fresh fruit or vegetable purchases,” he says. “They probably chose to spend it where they can get the most for their money and that may not have been directed to fresh produce purchases.”

What WIC moms buy

According to a pilot program in the South Central Los Angeles area, bananas were the top purchased item, followed by apples, carrots, tomatoes and iceberg lettuce. In dollar values, those purchases could translate to $98 million in national banana sales a year, $90 million in apple sales, $76 million in carrot sales, $62 million in tomatoes and $58 million for lettuce.

Laurie True, executive director of the California WIC association, says it is still evaluating cash value vouchers to get numbers on usage.

“We’re hearing it’s extremely popular,” she says. “They have a very high redemption rate. People are buying fresh produce and loving it.”

True says the vouchers are helping to bring fruits and vegetables to so-called “food deserts”. Lower income areas typically do not have widespread availability of fresh produce or many full service supermarkets.

Cash value vouchers are helping to change that, True says.

Tesco’s Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market is currently seeking WIC authorization.

“They have a new store in Compton, Calif.,” she says. “There are no other supermarkets around there and that is going to be their WIC flagship store.”

More funding on the way

DiSogra says advocates successfully lobbied to increase the value of vouchers for exclusively breastfeeding mothers from $8 a month to $10 a month. Lobbyists are working to increase the amount children receive by $2 per month, per child.

“That doesn’t sound like a lot but it could mean another $112 million (for fruits and vegetables),” she says.

Cash value vouchers are different than other WIC vouchers. They can be used on any brand, including organic in some cases. Some items, like dried fruit and white potatoes are excluded.

Entice with fresh

While every state allows fresh produce purchases, some states allow frozen, canned or a mixture of all three. Fourteen states allow only fresh produce purchases.

This is an opportunity to work with employees at the store level to get WIC moms shopping in the fresh produce department, Barieri says.

“You’ve got to be proactive,” he says. “We’re telling our folks to be proactive and engage these customers. Come in and show them choices and suggest items that are on sale. We want them to know where they can get the most for their $8.”

Simple signage reminding WIC shoppers to redeem their vouchers in the produce department is a good idea.

“We keep it generic,” he says. “And bilingual helps.”

Cash value vouchers could go a long way to increasing fresh produce sales in the long run, he says.

“It’s our hope and intention now that if you have the kids eating it and they like it, they’re going to be asking for it again over and above the first of the month purchases,” he says. “They’ll want baby carrots or golden pineapple instead of a bag of potato chips.”