Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2001, MCB UP Limited
The National School Fruit Scheme, the first Government funded scheme of its kind in the world, will give all four to six year olds in infant and nursery schools a free piece of fruit each school day by 2004. It will be the biggest programme to support children's nutrition since the introduction of free school milk in 1946. Evidence from around the world shows that eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day could help to prevent diseases such as heart disease, cancer and asthma. It is the second most effective strategy in preventing cancer after reducing smoking.
Recent research showed that one in five children eat no fruit and those in low income areas eat the least. The National Diet and Nutrition Survey, which surveyed over 2,000 four to 18 year olds, was published in June 2000. It found that compared to expert recommendations to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, children eat on average two. By comparison adults eat on average three portions. Children's consumption of fruit and vegetables has fallen since 1983 when they were eating on average three portions a day. By the late 1990s they were even lower at only two portions a day. One in five children eat no fruit in a week and three in five eat no leafy green vegetables. Children in low income groups are 50 per cent less likely to eat fruit and vegetables. These inequalities are reflected in health differences later in life when those in lower income groups are more likely to suffer cancer and heart disease.
Diets of school children are heavily dependent on foods which are rich in fat, sugar and salt. By weight, boys eat nearly twice as many biscuits than leafy green vegetables, while girls eat more than twice as much sweet and chocolate than leafy green vegetables. I was recently surprised while having a dinner at a hotel in Scotland, that the four young men at an adjoining table left all the vegetables and salads served with their meal and then tucked into highly calorific puddings.
Researchers have found that eating more fruit and vegetables can reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Fruit and vegetables lead to an increase in levels of beneficial compounds such as antioxidants in the blood. Studies also suggest that eating fruit and vegetables can improve lung function and reduces the risk of asthma and bronchitis among children and adults.
The scheme started in February 2001 when over 80,000 children in schools across the UK received a free piece of fruit. Secretary of State, Alan Milburn, said that we need to stop people becoming ill as well as treating them when they do. The scheme will enable thousands of children to get free fruit when they go to school. Food Standards Agency chair, John Krebs, said that encouraging children to develop healthy eating habits at an early age can make a real difference to their health in later life. Food Industry Minister, Joyce Quin, said that the scheme was good news for both the UK's school pupils and for the UK horticultural industry. Encouraging children to eat more fruit and vegetables will also encourage a wider consumption of fresh produce.
Encouraging children to reach for an apple or a banana instead of the ubiquitous packet of crisps or a chocolate bar may not be easy. It needs to begin in the very earliest days before food habits have become firmly entrenched. This means educating parents to the benefits of fruit and vegetables. Giving children fruit at school can encourage them away from the less nutritious food that the tuck shop offers and give them the best possible start to a healthy and long life.