Can schools make a difference to children’s fruit and vegetable consumption?

Since 2004 English primary schools have been providing pupils with a free piece of fruit every school day for the first three years of school. This intervention has been shown to have an impact on children’s intake of fruit and vegetables but it is not sustained when pupils no longer receive the free fruit. To maintain and improve children’s intakes of fruit and vegetables beyond the intervention it seems important for schools to extend initiatives to promote fruit and vegetables beyond the age of eight years when free fruit ceases to be provided.

Improvement F&V knowledge and practices in schools

Many English primary schools have embraced this idea and found opportunities for children to learn more about fruit and vegetables through lessons in the formal curriculum and extracurricular activities. For example, the school curriculum enables children to learn about fruit and vegetables in Science, Design and Technology, and Personal, Social, Health Education and Citizenship. Geography, English and Art also provide some educational opportunities for children to learn about fruit and vegetables. Outside the formal curriculum children can learn about fruit and vegetables through growing and cooking activities. The United Kingdom Royal Horticultural Society, for example, has spearheaded a national campaign called ‘Grow It, Cook It, Eat It’. This campaign encourages schools to set up growing activities in school which lead to cooking and eating opportunities for participating children.

Research has shown that practical activities such as cooking and gardening facilitate a liking for fruit and vegetables. Activities such as gardening and cooking undertaken with peers and teachers in school may help young children to overcome some of their natural fear of new food, known as food neophobia. This may occur through modelling of appropriate eating behaviour, repeated exposure to foods, providing encouraging and supportive environments for eating, and practical activities which help children become more familiar with foods.

New school food standards have been introduced to improve the nutritional quality of food served at school. Provision has been made to increase the amount of fruit and vegetables in school lunches and place restrictions on the provision of foods with low nutritional value, such as chips, confectionery and soft drinks. These standards are compulsory; however, children are still at liberty to bring a packed lunch which does not conform to the new standards.

A recent intervention to improve the food and nutritional value of children’s lunch boxes found that only 19% of children met the food-based guidelines for vegetables and 54% for fruit. The content and nutritional value of what children eat outside school is the responsibility of parents and other adult carers. There is some evidence that when children eat more fruit at school they eat less at home.

We know many schools are doing excellent work helping children to eat a nutritious diet by initiating projects, policies and good practice relating to food across the curriculum. But do these initiatives have an effect on children’s diet?

Do school initiatives have an effect on children’s F&V intake?

To investigate this we recruited a random sample of children attending 129 English primary schools. A dietary survey of 2,530 children from these schools, aged 6-7 years was conducted using The Child and Diet Evaluation Tool (CADET) to estimate the children’s mean intake of foods and nutrients. In addition schools were asked to complete a questionnaire which captured information and scored five types of initiatives which may affect children’s intake of fruit and vegetables:

  • Gardening
  • Cooking
  • Catering
  • Number of lessons
  • Parental involvement

The findings showed that children attending schools with a gardening club and an overall high score across the five categories, ate significantly more vegetables than schools without a gardening club and a low overall score. In addition schools where parents were actively involved in initiatives to promote fruit and vegetables, children, ate more of these foods. This effect was not seen with fruit consumption. Did the results differ in more deprived schools? The findings showed that efforts to promote fruit and vegetables to children have an effect regardless of the deprivation status of the area and the ethnic mix of the school.

This is, we believe, the first time attempt has to explore the relationship between initiatives schools themselves are taking to promote fruit and vegetables to children and their association with diet. Our findings show some encouraging results for schools that involve parents and promote fruit and vegetables through extracurricular activities such as gardening, but further works is needed to confirm these findings.

Ransley JK, Taylor EF, Radwan Y, Kitchen MS, Greenwood DC and Cade JE. Does nutrition education in primary schools make a difference to children’s
fruit and vegetable consumption? Public Health Nutrition 2010:13(11), 1898–1904

Return See next article