An alliance of health groups say the European Commission may be planning to abandon the EU School Fruit Scheme (SFS), a programme that provides fruit and vegetables and promotes healthy eating habits to more than 8.6 million children and more than 50,000 schools across Europe. Ahead of a Commission meeting this week with EU member states and stakeholders to discuss the scheme, a coalition of 12 public health and fruit and vegetable organisations called on the Commission to prioritise child health when making the cuts to EU’s initiatives under its so-called ‘Better Regulation’ plans.
The Commission is thought to be considering suspending the scheme as it sees it as an obstacle to achieve its better regulation and CAP simplification goals.
Yet, the alliance says the cost of the scheme is minimal – 0.25% of the EU agricultural budget (from €90-150 million) and it has only been in place for 5 years.
There are 22 million overweight children in the EU of which 5.1 million obese – an EU-wide trend set to make another 1.2 million children overweight and 300,000 obese each year.
Philippe Binard, General Delegate of Freshfel Europe, the European Fresh Produce Association, said, “This scheme has already proved to be a remarkable instrument to help children discover taste, texture and diversity of fruit and vegetables while contributing to tackle the growing problem of obesity.
“The SFS also supports the agricultural sector, a key industry for the EU’s jobs, as it promotes the consumption of its products and connect suppliers to schools in their neighbourhood,” said Binard.
OECD and WHO analysis show that consumption of fruit and vegetables is falling since the economic crisis, as households tend to replace healthy food by cheaper processed and calorie-dense foodstuffs.
The alliance says educating the youngest is a key starting point to reverse the trends contributing to the obesity epidemic and rising numbers of people suffering preventable chronic diseases including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers.
Dorota Sienkiewicz, Health Equity and Policy Coherence Coordinator at the European Public Health Alliance, said, “The EU SFS is a very cost-effective investment in public health.
“It will protect the future health of today’s children as they grow up and in the long run pay itself back many times over in savings to Europe’s economies and health systems which are already feeling the strain of unhealthy eating and shrinking budgets.”
Since it began in 2009, the scheme has spread to 55,000 schools and eight million children, in all but three member states.
Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reforms contemplate raising the Commission’s co-financing contribution by €60 million at a time when economic crises have forced budget cutbacks in many areas.
The Commission co-finances part of the programme. It depends on the number of children in each member state and what their economic development is, but it usually covers 50% of the budget that goes to the programme.
At present, that means that the European Union is investing €90 million per year, and this is matched by funding from the European member states.
The way countries implement the programme varies greatly.
The Commission has recommended a diversity of 5-10 different products to keep children interested, but mentions this may be difficult to follow in states with a preference for local or seasonal produce.
For instance, Slovenia prefers fruit and vegetables from integrated or organic production while the German state of Baden Wurttemberg only purchases fresh produce “in order to teach children everyday food preparation skills such as rinsing and chopping”.
Elsewhere, the Romanian programme has a strict focus on apples.
Romania, in fact, was the third-largest recipient in 2012-13, but its EU financing will fall by almost 50% to €4.9 million.
However, this is still higher than funding for Spain and France, which have more than double and triple Romania’s population respectively.
On a per capita basis, the biggest beneficiaries include Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Italy.
New EU entrant Croatia will also benefit from the program with €1.1 million in 2013-14.
In contrast to U.S.’ fast-moving Let’s Move! Salad Bars 2 Schools campaign, the European scheme actually runs seperately from the canteens.
By Martin Banks