Headlines: July 12th, 2007

New research shows that the scheme under which school children are given free fruit may not bring long-term health benefits. A study published today in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health questions the effectiveness of the scheme, which was launched in 2004.The idea of free fruit for pupils was first put forward in the government’s blueprint for the NHS in 2000 as a way of improving the diet of younger children in an attempt to reduce the risks of cancer and cardiovascular disease in later life. The scheme cost 42 million pounds to set up and has been given a further 77 million pounds to keep it operating.

The study, conducted by staff from the Centre for Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Leeds and from the National Centre for Educational Research, assessed the impact of the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme on 3700 children, aged from four to six, in 98 schools in the north of England during 2004. The average consumption of fruit and vegetables is three portions a day, that is two less than the recommended daily amount, and it is even lower for people in deprived areas and among children.

The study found the free fruit initially boosted intake by half a portion and slightly increased levels of beta carotene and vitamin but that these increases had dropped off seven months later and disappeared completely by the time pupils reached year 3, when they were, aged 7 to 8, and were no longer eligible under the scheme. The researchers found no changes in levels of salt, fat or overall energy intake among the children.

While children were receiving free fruit their fruit and vegetable intake actually fell at home possibly, say the authors, because parents thought their children were getting their quota at school. The report also highlights difficulties with the scheme, including the fact that the range of fruit and vegetables on offer is fairly narrow and that health and safety concerns add to the time needed for preparation.

The study suggests that for the scheme to have long term impact it needs to be more structured and targeted, and to involve the whole school as well as peers and parents. The fruit and vegetable message should also be carried forward at all meal times and throughout a child’s education, the authors add.