GETTING school children to eat their fruits and vegetables may seem like a tall order, but a pilot program first started more than 10 years ago has had success in this area.
In a public appearance at the end of March, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack reported that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Program (FFVP) has increased fruit and vegetable consumption by 15% among students in the nation's poorest elementary schools.
The program began as a pilot in 2002 to examine the effects of providing free fresh fruits and vegetables to students outside of regular school meals.
The program "demonstrates that when children are provided healthy fruits and vegetables as snacks, they were not only willing to try them, but the majority finished them," USDA noted.
Today, FFVP benefits more than 4 million low-income elementary students in 7,400 schools nationwide and has a budget of $163.5 million for the 2012-13 school year. FFVP funds are allocated at $50-75 per student per school year, or between $1 and $2 per week, "to schools with the highest percentages of low-income students, to the maximum extent practicable," according to the summary of a new USDA report, "Evaluation of the Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Program."
FFVP successfully introduces students to a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, from apples, bananas, oranges, carrots and broccoli to mangoes, pineapples, cauliflower and snow peas. Fresh fruit and vegetable snacks are served three to five times per week in 82% of FFVP schools (Figure).
A majority of FFVP students took the fruit and vegetable snack when offered. Of the participating students, 85% took the fruit snack most or all of the time it was offered, compared to 63% of students who took the vegetable snack most or all of the time.
The increased fruit and vegetable consumption has significant public health benefits since these low-income children have the lowest fruit and vegetable intake and are at risk for poor health outcomes. The report notes that the increase in fruit and vegetable consumption through the program doesn't appear to substantially increase calories in the students' diets, plus they consumed more vitamins A and C, beta carotene and fiber.
The USDA study found that students, educators and parents had a high opinion of the program. Parents, in particular, felt that FFVP influenced their children to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables both at school and at home.
"We are thrilled that this evaluation confirms what we have seen in dozens of FFVP schools all over the country in the last 10 years. School officials, parents and children always tell us how much they like the FFVP and that it is making a positive difference in children's lives," said Dr. Lorelei DiSogra, United Fresh vice president of nutrition and health. "Now, we have the evidence that the FFVP, which serves more than 4 million low-income elementary school students every day, is effective and increases their fruit and vegetable consumption at school and at home."
Vilsack also launched the SNAP: Nutrition Education & Obesity Prevention Grant Program, which expands the scope of the existing SNAP education program by providing states with additional flexibility to support targeted nutrition education and obesity prevention activities according to the needs of SNAP recipients and low-income families in each state.
Under this new program, states may use the funding for a variety of activities, including bringing famers markets to low-income areas, developing policies to address food deserts in low-income areas or educating SNAP retailers on how to stock healthier food options.
"Expanding access to nutritious food will not only empower American families to serve healthy meals to their children, but it will also help expand the demand of agricultural products," Vilsack said. "These efforts will help open new markets for famers to sell their products, create jobs and help revitalize distressed communities."
According to USDA, more than 3,200 farmers markets and farm stands are now authorized to accept payment through SNAP.
USDA also launched a new $5 million Farm to School grant program in 2012 to increase the amount of healthy, local food offered in schools. In its first year, the grants are supporting 68 projects serving nearly 2 million students.