Free fruit at school - a fruitless exercise!

According to researchers a government scheme in Britain to hand out free fruit in schools has been fruitless! - as it has done nothing to encourage children to eat more healthily.

Statistics suggest that one in five children in the UK eat no fruit while three in five eat no green leafy vegetables.

The scheme which cost the British government£119 million over a 3 year period, was advocated by the Department of Health and endeavored to give all four to six-year-olds in state infant, primary and special schools in England a free piece of fruit or vegetable every day.

Now a new study by researchers at Leeds University has cast serious doubts over the scheme's long-term benefits.

The scheme say the researchers is the largest scale intervention in English children's diet since the introduction of free school milk in 1946.

The researchers led by Dr. Janet Cade, a professor at the centre for epidemiology and biostatistics, examined the fruit and nutrient intake for 3,700 children from 98 schools in the North of England during 2004.

They found that while the scheme initially boosted fruit intake by half a portion and slightly increased levels of beta carotene and vitamin C, the benefits lapsed after seven months.

They suspect this was because once pupils reached age seven to eight they were no longer eligible for free fruit or vegetables and thereafter the benefits could not be seen at all.

From the beginning of the next school year in September, carrots and tomatoes will be added to the apples, pears, bananas and citrus fruits already available as part of the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme.

The researchers say there are certain difficulties associated with the scheme because the range of fruit and vegetables on offer is narrow because of health and safety concerns and also the time needed for preparation.

They suggest that the scheme should be more structured and targeted to achieve long-term impact and should have involvement from the whole school as well as from parents.

Dr. Cade also says there was evidence that children’s intake of fruit and vegetables declined at home at the same time as it increased at school.

According to the Department of Health, the Leeds research is based on old information from 2004 as part of the first evaluation of the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme and they say they know that the scheme has encouraged children to eat more fruit and vegetables.

Critics say the scheme was always unlikely to work because making fruit and vegetables available at school break time has no place in a culture in which healthy food is considered 'uncool' and they say stories abound of children forlornly wandering around the school playground with a bucket of fruit, trying to dispose of it.

The study is published in the current issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

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