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Will European agricultural policy for school fruit and vegetables improve public health? A review of school fruit and vegetable programmes

Joia de Sa , Karen Lock
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/eurpub/ckn061 558-568 First published online: 21 August 2008


Background: For the first time, public health, particularly obesity, is being seen as a driver of EU agricultural policy. In 2007, European Ministers of Agriculture were asked to back new proposals for school fruit and vegetable programmes as part of agricultural reforms. In 2008, the European Commission conducted an impact assessment to assess the potential impact of this new proposal on health, agricultural markets, social equality and regional cohesion. Methods: A systematic review of the effectiveness of interventions to promote fruit and/or vegetable consumption in children in schools, to inform the EC policy development process. Results: School schemes are effective at increasing both intake and knowledge. Of the 30 studies included, 70% increased fruits and vegetables (FV) intake, with none decreasing intake. Twenty-three studies had follow-up periods >1 year and provide some evidence that FV schemes can have long-term impacts on consumption. Only one study led to both increased fruit and vegetable intake and reduction in weight. One study showed that school fruit and vegetable schemes can also help to reduce inequalities in diet. Effective school programmes have used a range of approaches and been organized in ways which vary nationally depending on differences in food supply chain and education systems. Conclusions: EU agriculture policy for school fruits and vegetables schemes should be an effective approach with both public health and agricultural benefits. Aiming to increase FV intake amongst a new generation of consumers, it will support a range of EU policies including obesity and health inequalities.

  • children
  • fruit
  • obesity
  • public health
  • schools
  • vegetables


Public health drivers of EU agricultural policy for fruit and vegetables

Except for food safety issues, public health is not traditionally a consideration of the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) despite its clear role in nutrition. On 17 January 2007, the European Commission (EC) presented proposals to reform agricultural policy for fruits and vegetables (FV)1 in addition to a larger legislative process to modernize CAP in 2008.2

Uniquely for agricultural policy, health has been seen as a key driver of the FV proposals with stated goals which include increasing FV consumption in Europe particularly as an approach to tackle childhood obesity. The EC announced a 60% budget contribution towards promotion of FV consumption as long as this was targeted at children and adolescents. In addition, in April 2007, the EC announced new funding for school FV schemes, which had not been proposed in the initial reforms. Impetus was provided by the EC White Paper on Obesity (2007) stating that ‘a school fruit scheme would be a step in the right direction’.3

In June 2007, European Ministers of Agriculture were asked by Agricultural Commissioner Fischer Boel to back a new €103 million annual FV school programme requiring co-funding by Member States. These plans were rejected but the Commission was asked to conduct an impact assessment of the school FV proposals.4 Between September 2007 and May 2008, DG AGRI conducted a mandatory impact assessment process5 which informed new policy to be launched in autumn 2008. This aimed to assess the potential impact of a new school scheme on health, diet, agricultural markets, social equality and regional cohesion. It also assessed the value for money and added value of the proposals at an EU level. This literature review was conducted to directly inform this impact assessment. Its aim was to consider whether school FV schemes are an effective mechanism of improving FV consumption in children.

Will improving FV intake in children improve public health?

It is well accepted that low-FV intake in adulthood is associated with ill-health, particularly cardiovascular disease and cancer.6,7 Inadequate FV consumption has been estimated to be responsible for over 1 million deaths annually in the EU.8 There is limited evidence of an association between childhood FV consumption and risk of adult stroke and cancer from the Boyd-Orr Cohort, which some experts interpret as a direct effect.9,10 There is also evidence of other benefits. Although FV consumption has been found to decrease in adulthood,11 observational tracking studies show that eating recommended dietary guideline amounts in childhood positively influences healthy eating in adults.12,13 The reasons for this constancy in the diet are not yet known. Diets high in FV have also been proposed as reducing obesity.14

Despite health benefits, children worldwide are not meeting minimum FV intake goals of 400 g person−1 day−1 advocated internationally.15 In a dietary survey of schoolchildren in nine European countries, none met FV intake guidelines.16 The 2007 World Cancer Research Fund report recently proposed the average population consumption should be over 600 g day−1.6 Even with a range of initiatives targeting FV intake and obesity throughout Europe, there has been little improvement. Schools appear to be an ideal setting to improve diet and tackle obesity in children, but what factors make school FV interventions effective?


The aim of this review was to systematically synthesize worldwide evidence from published and unpublished literature on interventions to promote fruit and/or vegetable consumption in children in school settings. The objective was to consider all interventions based in school or pre-school, applied to individuals or populations, encouraging fruit and/or vegetable consumption. The primary outcome was either change in intake of fruits and/or vegetables, or a change in knowledge, attitude or preference to fruits or vegetables. Study inclusion was conditional on the presence of a control group for comparison and a follow-up period of at least 3 months. The intervention had to promote a diet high in fruit and/or vegetables in school children under 18 years. Secondary outcomes including impact on other food intake and body mass index (BMI) were considered.

In August 2007, the following databases were searched from the earliest record—Pubmed, CABDirect, Cochrane Library, Web of Knowledge, IBSS, Psycinfo(BIDS), Embase and Biomed Central. The search strategy was developed for Pubmed and adapted for other databases. This was complemented by a search for unpublished literature, through the internet and contact with organizations in countries known to have ‘5 a day’ type FV programmes. References cited in articles were searched, and 34 experts worldwide were contacted to provide information on published and unpublished studies. Full details of the search strategy, including key words used, for each database are available in the complete report.17

Papers with an English abstract published in any language were considered. Abstracts were screened by one reviewer and rejected if it was clear that the article did not report a school FV intervention or if inclusion criteria were not met. If there was uncertainty, the full text was obtained and studies read by two reviewers who agreed on final inclusion. All studies meeting inclusion criteria were independently read by both reviewers. Study quality was assessed using a quality assessment tool used in a previous published systematic review of FV interventions.18

Meta-analysis was not attempted due to marked heterogeneity of populations, interventions and outcome measures among the included studies. We followed the Cochrane handbook guidance supporting the use of a systematic, narrative approach when meta-analysis is inappropriate. We thus synthesized the study results according to age group of the target population and intervention type.


From the search strategy 1021 unduplicated papers were identified of which 128 reported on FV interventions in school-based settings. Of these 87 studies were excluded because they did not meet inclusion criteria and 7 whose quality was rated as weak. The final pool consisted of 34 articles reporting on 30 studies.

The general study characteristics are summarized in Table 1. The studies were divided by age group into two groups: 5- to 11-year-olds and 11- to 18-year-olds to approximate with primary and secondary school age groups worldwide. Three studies did not fit these categories and were assigned based on the age of the majority of children.19–21 Details on the studies including intervention type and length of follow-up can be found in Tables 2 and 3.

View this table:
Table 1

Summary of all the studies included in the review

View this table:
Table 2

Details of primary school studies

View this table:
Table 3

Details of secondary school studies

Evidence of effectiveness

Twenty-two studies (over 70%) reported a significant positive intervention effect on FV intake at follow-up. Differences in intervention effect ranged from +0.14 servings per day to +0.99 servings per day.17 Studies did not measure or report changes in intake in similar ways which makes comparisons of effect size or meta-analysis difficult. In addition, three studies reported significant effects on intake at some point during the study though this was not maintained at follow-up. Statistically significant results for changes in nutrition knowledge or preferences were reported in five out of seven studies. No studies found overall decreases in FV intake following interventions.

Results by age group

Twenty-three studies were aimed at younger children, while seven targeted older children. Ten studies on the younger children were carried out in the United States, 12 in Europe, and 1 in New Zealand. In the older age group, four were conducted in the United States and three in Europe. All studies involved both boys and girls. Participant numbers varied from 99 students to over 4000 students. Follow-up times varied from 3 months to 8 years.

Nineteen studies in younger children reported a statistically significant increase in fruit and/or vegetable consumption at some stage during the intervention, which was maintained at follow-up in 16 studies (70%). Of the four studies that did not report increased intake, one reported significant increase in knowledge of the health benefits of FV,19 two were primarily targeted at obesity prevention and reported a decrease in consumption of high-fat foods,22,23 and one study prevented further decline in FV intake.24

In the older age group, five studies (70%) reported statistically significant increases in fruit and/or vegetable consumption. One study reported increases in intake during the intervention which was not sustained at follow-up25 and another, primarily targeted at obesity, only found decreased fat intake.26,27

Results by intervention type

The studies reported on a wide range of different interventions, although many had elements in common (Table 1). Provision of free or subsidized fruit and/or vegetables was part of 10 studies, including two national programmes in England28 and Norway,29 and a national pilot scheme in the Netherlands.30 The English and Norwegian programmes have been evaluated after 3 years, showing statistically significant increases in consumption during the scheme,28,31,32 with the Norwegian study showing sustained increases after the scheme finished.31 This is unsurprising as accessibility and availability have been found to be important determinants of childhood FV intake.33 Though FV were not provided directly as part of other studies, accessibility was increased through other interventions such as school food service modification,34 tuckshops,35 tasting or cooking24,36 and school gardens.20

A programme of supporting activities may improve the longer term effects of increasing availability on children's intake. Multicomponent interventions have been shown to be effective at both increasing FV intake and reducing obesity in children.18,37 Twenty-three studies had a multicomponent design, which we defined as having two (or more) programme elements, for example, changes to school food services, point of purchase information (Table 1). An education component was delivered in the majority of studies. Six (of 7) studies in older children, and 17 (of 23) studies in younger children had some educational component. Many studies delivered a specifically tailored education resource or curriculum, although some schemes ran concurrently with other national curriculum initiatives on healthy eating.32

Parental involvement was a feature of 11 studies in younger children and 3 in older children. Parents were involved in a variety of ways from helping with homework,38 to accessing tools to judge their own FV intake.39

A motivational component, for example, in the form of peer or fictional role models, or rewarding children for increasing intake, led to increased intake in three studies34,36,40–42 in both age groups. This approach has been used successfully in a pilot of the Irish national Food Dude programme which has seen sustained results at 1 year. The use of incentives was effective in some studies34,36,40 however, in others the positive effect was not maintained at follow-up.24,43

It is difficult to unravel the effects of multiple intervention components. It is obviously preferable to determine which components contribute to effectiveness in order to improve potency and/or cost effectiveness. Only one randomised controlled trial explicitly studied the impact of different levels of exposure to a multicomponent intervention.44 Neither school environment interventions on their own, nor environmental change plus curriculum sessions had a significant impact on FV intake. The addition of trained peer leaders led to a small, significant increase, but this was not sustained at 2 year follow-up.

Seven studies targeted obesity reduction, with FV intake as a secondary aim. Only one study managed to produce positive impact on BMI and FV intake.21 Other studies produced significant positive results in other aspects of diet e.g. fat intake.22,23,27


The finding that 70% of school schemes increase FV intake is very encouraging, and supports previous reviews of childhood FV interventions.18,44 Only two previous reviews have concentrated on school interventions; one on US studies only,45 and an older review of primary schools.46 This review is more comprehensive in geographical scope, age and intervention types. Due to the heterogeneity of FV interventions, it is unsurprising that only one review has attempted meta-analysis, which was of seven US school-based FV studies showing a net increase of 0.45 servings per day (95% confidence interval (CI) 0.33–0.59).45

It is important to be aware of this review's limitations. Although increasing FV intake in children is likely to have health benefits worldwide, the included studies are limited to developed countries. Several studies from developing countries did not meet the inclusion criteria. This included novel interventions such as school gardening and school food policies in South America, Africa and Asia. It also included some national programmes, e.g. the New Zealand initiative whose one year evaluation showed both increases in FV consumption and decreased amount of TV children watched.47 There was heterogeneity of both FV intake measurement and reporting across studies. Reliable data collection in children is complicated by difficulty with recall, social desirability and observer bias.30 Not all studies used the same international standard definition of what to include in FV measurement.15 Studies varied in reporting using both grams per day and servings per day (with varying definitions of serving sizes).

Several lessons may be learnt from the review findings for increasing FV consumption in children. Much of the current focus for obesity policy is on younger children, with the perception that diets of younger children are easier to change.12 This review shows that increasing FV intake is possible across a wide age range (70% of studies in both age groups). This is particularly important in teenagers when FV intake decreases dramatically.

School FV schemes can also have the added benefit of reducing health and social inequalities. Children from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds traditionally have lower FV intake. One Norwegian study directly compared the effect of providing fruit through a subsidized subscription or free scheme. The free scheme was used by all groups whereas the subsidized scheme was mainly used by traditional high consumers (high SES). Compared to the subscription scheme, the free scheme reduced differences in FV intake between socioeconomic groups, with increases in FV intake sustained 3 years after the free programme.31,48

Will school FV schemes result in long-term dietary changes? A total of 23 studies had follow-ups >1 year. Evaluation of the Norwegian programme after 3 years provides some evidence that large-scale schemes that increase FV availability can increase consumption in the long term. The evidence to date suggests that <1 year free FV is not sufficient for long-term dietary change. This has implications that any EU-funded programme should not only provide FV to children free of charge, but this should run over several years and allow further evaluation of long-term effectiveness.

Over 75% studies involved a multicomponent approach. Although it is not possible to determine the most effective components, most programmes included some education (either integral or through simultaneous ‘healthy eating’ initiatives). This review also shows that increasing children's access to FV can be achieved in a number of ways; changing school meals, snack provision, gardening, cooking or tasting programmes. Policy-makers, however, need to understand that multiple changes in social, economic and physical aspects of children's environments are also likely to be required to sustain increased FV intake, and that schools are only one aspect of this.

It is important to recognize that school FV schemes can be organized in various ways (figure 1) and factors for successful implementation vary nationally depending on differences in the food supply chain and education system. For example, the review showed that schemes differed in whether the school or government was the purchaser, and whether FV was supplied direct from producers, wholesalers or retailers. The education systems of countries vary widely. Some countries provide cooked school lunches e.g. the United Kingdom, while others provide no meals with all children bringing food from home e.g. Ireland. National school food policies vary in terms of dietary guidelines and what food can be provided or consumed in schools. Educational curricula also differ in whether they include nutrition education and cooking skills. Clearly, any EU proposals for school FV schemes must have the potential to be adaptable to the varying national contexts. This is supported by the Pro Children intervention study which was conducted in three countries with different school systems.39 The study combined free FV provision with educational initiatives and parental support. However, the timing of the FV provision differed between countries, as Norway and the Netherlands have no school meal provision. A strong partnership approach to implementation ensured that the intervention was adapted to the different country environments, resulting in an increase in FV consumption in intervention schools.

Figure 1

Stages in the organization and delivery of school FV schemes

A final lesson is that sustainable funding is essential as some national FV schemes (such as Denmark) initially failed due to lack of recurrent government resources and reliance on private industry and parental contribution. Clearly, EU funding to support national school FV provision would be a welcome initiative especially in central and eastern Europe where FV intake is lower.8 To do this the EU have to be persuaded that they offer ‘value for money’. To date there has only been one Norwegian modeling study which attempted to measure the potential cost-effectiveness of school FV provision. This shows that even very small increases in lifelong FV intake make a school programme cost-effective,49 and suggests that investment in school FV is justified even in the face of some remaining uncertainty over long-term effectiveness.

The public consultation on the EU school FV policy proposed four options:

Option 1: ‘no change’;

Option 2: creating networks of experts to advise ‘best practice’;

Option 3: Member States would submit proposals on a ‘call for tender’ basis with funds allocated based on fulfilment of specific criteria;

Option 4: EU-funded school FV provision for all member states with any additional programme elements funded nationally.

Clearly Options 1 and 2 would do little to change the current situation, and Option 3 funding may increase inequalities as monies may only be awarded to countries with the resources to navigate complicated EC tendering processes. Option 4 was supported most strongly in the consultation and impact assessment processes by all sectors, and forms the basis of the Euro 90 million per year school fruit scheme proposed by the European Commission in July 2008.5

An EU supported school FV scheme appears to be logical public health and agricultural policy. Aiming at increasing intake amongst a new generation of consumers, it could also support other EU concerns including health inequalities, stimulating agricultural markets, and reducing health care costs51 through prevention. EU proposals should be adaptable to context-specific factors, including differences in education systems, school meal programmes, supply chains and food cultures, and should be made sustainable through long-term funding. This policy process is significant as it would be one of the first public health policies organized and funded through the EU agricultural budget. This funding of ‘health promoting policies’ from other policy sectors is an important example of new approaches for tackling diet-related disease.


JDS and KL presented this work as part of the EC impact assessment process for school fruit and vegetable schemes. They were not paid to do this work by any external source. The views expressed are the authors own.

Conflicts of interest: None declared.

Key points

  • The EU is proposing to introduce policy and funding for school fruit and vegetable schemes as part of EU agricultural policy in autumn 2008.

  • This policy is important as it would be one of the first public health policies organized and funded through the EU agricultural budget.

  • Although some European countries have school FV programmes, previous evidence reviews of FV interventions in children have been limited in scope.

  • School FV schemes are effective at increasing FV intake worldwide, and the results can be sustained long term in large national studies.

  • Free school schemes can contribute to reducing inequalities in diet.

  • There is currently little research on the impact of FV interventions on reducing overweight and obesity.


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