The EU School Fruit Scheme makes money available for the distribution of vegetables and fruit to schoolchildren and has always been presented as the beacon for health in the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This scheme has recently been revised and merged with the School Milk Scheme, a similar measure, but focusing on milk and dairy products, through a package adopted by the European Parliament in plenary. But, should the public health community welcome this scheme? Let’s take a look at the evidence.
Apart from the direct effect of increasing consumption of fruit and vegetables among schoolchildren, the scheme represents a conceptual public health inroad into the CAP. The scheme mentions the “incidence of child obesity as a result of consumption habits geared to highly processed foods” while aiming to promote “healthy eating habits“. Is the scheme a Trojan horse to show the ’Health in all Policies’ obligation is considered in the CAP? For instance, in a 2015 report DG AGRI considers the scheme:
“as an example of a modern and encompassing CAP policy which integrates health-related issues in the design and implementation of its instruments in line with Article 168(1) of the Treaty”.
The new measure, beyond distributing products, now places more emphasis on education linked to food consumption. The educational component is meant to reconnect “children with agriculture and the variety of Union agricultural products, particularly those produced in their region”. An optimistic interpretation suggests this measure could have long-term benefits if it encourages children to become accustomed to the variety of tastes of quality food products and to build acceptance of diverse diets at a young age. This could create positive knock-on effects for food choices throughout life.
However, less favourable aspects of the scheme should also be mentioned: The scheme has always formed an integral part of the European Commission’s defence against constructive criticisms of the CAP (“but we operate the School Fruit Scheme”) – regardless of the fact that even with financing increased to €150 million per year, it still represents a tiny 0.25% of the CAP budget.
More fundamentally, despite the healthy gloss, some critics claim that the scheme is merely a market mechanism creating an outlet for EU agricultural produce. With the fruit and milk schemes now merged, around 20% of the budget can be transferred from one pillar to the other. Considering the differences in lobbying power, there is a threat that funding for fruit and vegetables may be diverted to the dairy side, given that the milk market is in crisis.
The loudest alarm bell for public health is that processed foods may still be distributed through the scheme. Although there was strong pressure from various sides in the European Parliament to bar using the funds for products with added fat, sugar and salt, the Council decided that some of these products can still be distributed to children, however subject to approval by competent health authorities.
The proof of the pudding will of course be in the eating. Depending on national approaches, the result could be great for kids’ health, make very little difference, or maybe even make matters worse if the processed food option is applied carelessly. What is clear is that the impacts on children’s health should be monitored and reported. It is not only the kids who have lessons to learn when it comes to food choices.
By Nikolai Pushkarev, Policy Coordinator Food, Drink & Agriculture, EPHA