The provision of fruit and vegetables to schoolchildren appears to promote the consumption of these foods at schools without a nutrition policy. A study conducted by Wageningen University & Research (WUR), among others, shows that the ‘EU School Fruit and Vegetable Programme’ is primarily of added value at schools that have not implemented a nutrition policy. Schoolchildren who participated in the ‘Taste Lessons’ programme, in which schools teach their pupils about taste and food, gained more knowledge about healthy nutrition, regardless of their school’s policy on nutrition. WUR PhD candidate Angeliek Verdonschot was commissioned by the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality to conduct a study on this subject.
‘Taste Lessons’ was developed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality to teach children at all levels of primary school about taste and food. The programme, which teaches children more about food by appealing to all their senses, is currently being used by 75% of all schools in the Netherlands. Around 3,000 primary schools on average participate in the EU School Fruit and Vegetable Programme (‘EU School Fruit’) on an annual basis. The schools receive fruit and vegetables for their pupils three times a week for the duration of a twenty-week period. In addition to healthy snacks, the EU School Fruit programme also provides a series of lessons.
Positive scores for schools without a nutrition policy
In this study, one-third of the schools did not participate in any programme, one third only handed out EU school fruit, and one third offered its pupils both EU School Fruit and Taste Lessons. The participating schools, excluding the ones in the control group, had already taken part in EU School Fruit in the past. To emphasise the contrast between the three groups, the EU School Fruit lessons were not provided at schools that participated only in the EU School Fruit programme. Generally, the programmes had no impact on children’s consumption of fruit and vegetables, although an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption was detected in those cases where EU School Fruit was offered to pupils at schools without an active nutrition policy.
Verdonschot: ‘One of the aspects of a nutrition policy is the promotion of healthy alternatives during breaks or for birthday celebrations. In our study, we did not measure the extent to which a policy like this is effective in itself. Our findings do show that schools without a policy seem to benefit more from the programmes. This ties in with the expectation that pupils at schools without a nutrition policy are probably “less concerned” with healthy nutrition and that here there may be more to gain with food education compared to schools where healthy consumption is already the norm.’
Parents influence eating behaviour
Children who receive less encouragement with regard to healthy nutrition at home tend to eat more fruit and vegetables when participating in both the EU School Fruit programme and the Taste Lessons. A positive development was not noted among children who were encouraged to eat more healthily at home. This may be due to the fact that little progress could be noted in these cases, as these children had already developed healthy eating habits.
The difference in the consumption of fruit and vegetables was only visible in the group that received EU School Fruit the Taste Lessons. This is remarkable and not in line with the expectation that eating habits are influenced by both EU School Fruit and the combination of EU School Fruit and the Taste Lessons. Perhaps the children’s home situation plays a role in this. This needs to be researched further.
More lessons lead to greater knowledge
Taste Lessons once again appears to produce positive effects in improving children’s understanding of healthy nutrition. Pupils that participated in the Taste Lessons and EU School Fruit know more about healthy nutrition after these programmes than those who were not exposed to them. This increase in knowledge was not visible among children who participated only in EU School Fruit. It can therefore be concluded that Taste Lessons contributes to children’s knowledge of healthy nutrition. ‘The relationship between knowledge about nutrition and healthy eating habits remains a complex issue’, confirms Verdonschot. ‘Many studies do not reveal a direct relationship between increased knowledge and healthy eating habits. However, we do expect that knowledge of healthy nutrition has an influence on eating habits in the long term.’
In addition, the number of lessons taken as part of the Taste Lessons programme had an impact on the amount of knowledge garnered by pupils with regard to healthy nutrition. Pupils who completed three to five lessons learned more than those who participated in less than three. The lessons were appreciated by both pupils and teachers. They were awarded a score of 3.8 and 4.1 out of 5 points, respectively.
Healthy eating habits
So, what is healthy nutrition exactly? Verdonschot: ‘As described by the Netherlands Nutrition Centre: lots of vegetables, fruit, wholegrain cereals, beans, oil, nuts and tap water. Less meat and dairy, and fewer sweets, snacks and soft drinks. More information is available about this under ‘Five Healthy Food Groups’.
Schools wishing to implement a school fruit policy can visit www.wijkiezengroenteenfruit.nu for more information. The website offers a simple four-step plan on how agreements can be made concerning fixed ‘fruit & vegetable’ days.