About four million elementary students should receive a free vegetable or fruit snack at school next year, thanks to the expansion of a U.S. Department of Agriculture program, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Tuesday.

fruitsnacks-featured.jpgVilsack said USDA plans to put $158 million into its Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program for the 2011-12 school year; the expanded assistance could help to benefit an estimated 600,000 to 950,000 more students than were served this year. 

The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program was authorized and funded under the  National School Lunch Act and expanded in recent years as a result of the 2008 Farm Bill. It operates in selected low-income elementary schools. Each student receives between $50 and $75 worth of fresh produce over the school year.

The program has been a success, both with kids and the U.S. produce industry.

 “This program is very popular. It’s a hit with kids, with the parents and with the schools, and it’s having an undeniably positive effect not only on the way kids eat at school but also on their eating habits at home,” said Dr. Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of Nutrition and Health for the United Fresh Produce Association in a statement.

Kevin Concannon, USDA Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, said in a news release, “I am pleasantly surprised when children tell me it was their first time trying a particular fruit or vegetable. Fortunately children are learning fruits and vegetables are healthy choices and tasty alternatives to snacks high in fat, sugar, or salt.”

A list of the funding allocations by state is available in the USDA news release.