by Kim Krisberg
If you serve it, they will eat it. That's one of the many lessons gleaned from a new report on the national Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program.
In the first really rigorous study of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP), researchers found that fruit and veggie consumption was higher among students in FFVP schools. In fact, such students ate about one-third of a cup more of fruits and veggies than students in comparable schools that were not taking part in FFVP. Designed to improve kids' diets, FFVP reimburses elementary schools with high rates of free and reduced-priced school meal enrollment for offering fresh produce outside of normal meal times. Initial funding for the program began in 2008–2009 at $40 million and as of 2011–2012 had grown to $150 million.
In a news release, USDA stated that the March report "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." In addition to providing fruits and veggies, FFVP schools are also encouraged to offer nutrition education. And the report found that FFVP schools were indeed home to greater levels of nutrition education and promotion, including distributing promotional flyers, brochures and newsletters. On average, schools participating in FFVP provided nutrition education more than twice a week, whereas non-FFVP school offered such education less than once a week. FFVP schools also promoted messages about trying new kinds of foods more often.
Susan Bartlett, a lead author of the report and a principal associate at Abt Associates, noted that participating schools really did take the nutrition education component seriously and helped improve kids' attitudes about fruits and veggies.
"And those attitudes carried over at home," Bartlett told me. "It's a consistent story."
The report, which studied nearly 4,700 students in 214 schools, found that students attending FFVP schools tended to eat more fruits and veggies outside of school as well. In fact, their attitudes about produce also changed. Such students were more likely to agree that they "like most fruits" and that they "like to try new fruits and new vegetables." Researchers also found no statistical difference in energy intake (calorie intake) between FFVP schools and non-FFVP schools. (This last finding meant researchers couldn't definitely accept or reject hypotheses that increased fruit and veggie consumption may contribute to weight gain or that it was replacing consumption of more calorie-dense foods.)
Federal guidelines encourage schools to put the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program into action at least two times each week, and researchers found that 94 percent of schools did so. Moreover, 41 percent of FFVP schools provided free fruit and veggie snacks five days a week.
Bartlett noted that the program is providing a particular nutritional boost for kids from lower-income families, many of whom tend to start out with narrower access to fresh produce and lower consumption.
"So having any kind of increase, even by small amounts, is important," she said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adopting a diet rich in fruits and veggies can reduce the risk of cancer and other chronic conditions. Unfortunately, according to a 2009 action guide from the agency, only 21 percent of middle and high schools offered students fruits and non-fried veggies outside of official school meal programs.
To download a copy of the "Evaluation of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program," click here.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.