Health Promoting Schools in New Zealand provides Fruit and Leadership

Much worldwide attention has been paid to the “obesity epidemic” and the potential impacts of this epidemic on young people and adults. In New Zealand, concern has been expressed about the “obesogenic food environment” in and around schools and research that shows poor student nutrition is associated with poor attendance, behaviour, and academic outcomes. This situation has led to debate about whether schools can be, or should be, used as vehicles for educating and/or regulating students to make healthy choices. Internationally, individual schools and national or regional agencies have put in place a range of initiatives that aim to use educational settings to promote healthy behaviours.

This paper describes some of the findings from a study of a school-based health education and promotion initiative, Fruit in Schools.

What is Fruit in Schools?

Fruit in Schools is a New Zealand initiative designed to improve health outcomes for students who attend schools serving low socio-economic communities (schools rated decile 1 or 2). Over time, all schools in the primary sector (students in Years 0 to 8) with decile 1 or 2 ratings were invited to join the initiative. Students at schools which opted to join Fruit in Schools were offered a piece of free daily fruit, and the schools were offered extra funding and support from agencies to promote healthy lifestyles.

In each school, a lead teacher was offered some classroom release time to oversee Fruit in Schools, and Fruit in Schools coordinators were employed by local health boards to work with clusters of schools. This and other support was focused around four national health priority areas: healthy eating, physical activity, smoke-free, and sun-smart (sun protection) behaviours. Schools could also add their own health priorities. The first phase of Fruit in Schools started in late 2005, and initiative was funded by the Ministry of Health in partnership with the Ministry of Education.

The future? Students leading the way

Students at schools which serve low socio-economic communities are more likely to experience poor longer-term health and education outcomes than their peers at other schools. The evaluation of Fruit in Schools showed that participating schools increased their focus on health and wellbeing in a way that created a “protective climate” around students. The findings presented in this paper are of scholarly significance because they add to an emerging evidence base about the utility of settings-based and ecological health promotion approaches in enhancing school culture and health and educational outcomes for students.

For participating schools, a key aspect of their “Healthy School” culture was the prioritisation of approaches that enabled students to lead and design actions that were cognisant of the interests of their peers and the unique nature of their school. Being a leader supported students to develop a sense of connection to school and community responsibility, and provided them with the sorts of knowledge, skills, and competencies they are likely to need in the future.

This discussion of student leadership approaches is not intended to down-play the importance of other forms of health promotion. Current good practice is to take a systems view and use multifaceted approaches to develop a range of strategies to address different aspects of the wider system. The use of community development processes that aim to educate and enable rather than regulate, within initiatives such as Fruit in Schools, are best viewed as one component of a wider strategy.

The question we need to be asking is not, “What is the most effective sole way of creating change?”, but “What is the best package of approaches and initiatives that are likely to impact on school culture and processes in ways that set young people up for a healthy future?” The study reported on in this paper suggests that supporting young people to lead the way is one key approach which can offer young people the opportunities and skills they need to take charge of their future.

The full report and references are available at 5aday.co.nz. For more information on the current Fruit in Schools programme visit

Boyd, S. (2011). Educating healthy citizens in New Zealand schools: Students leading the way. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American
Educational Research Association, New Orleans, USA, April 8-12, 2011.