Imagine a federally funded program that could increase kids’ acceptance of fruits and vegetables, spur them to make healthier choices in the cafeteria, and even lower their body-mass index (BMI) scores, all for a mere $50 to $75 per child. It may sound too good to be true, but for over a decade, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) has been doing just that, simply by providing low-income elementary school kids with fresh fruits and vegetables as their mid-day snack.
Now, actions in Congress could undermine the program’s core purpose, angering both child health advocates and the fresh produce industry.
Starting out as a small four-state pilot in 2002, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program was so well received that it has grown steadily ever since; schools in all 50 states now participate and the program’s current annual budget has grown to $177 million. States direct their share of that funding to elementary schools with the highest enrollment of children qualifying for free or reduced price lunch, and at least 50 percent of a school’s students must qualify in order for it to participate.
Although the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program is considered a federal child nutrition program, its underlying goal is arguably less about feeding kids and more about education and long-term behavioral change. For example, schools are encouraged to serve not only familiar carrot sticks and apple slices, but a wide variety of fresh produce. Exotic fruits like persimmons, papayas, and green plums have been offered in some schools, as well more common produce that’s rarely seen on cafeteria trays, such as avocados, blueberries, radishes, and asparagus. Participating schools are strongly encouraged to incorporate nutrition education into their daily curriculum, preferably while the snack itself is being served, and some schools even include information about the day’s fruit or vegetable in their morning announcements.
These concerted efforts to expand kids’ palates and teach them the benefits of eating fresh produce appear to be paying off. A 2013 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) evaluation of the program found “strong evidence” that the FFVP boosted children’s fruit and vegetable consumption both inside and outside of school, and that it created more positive attitudes about fresh produce generally, including an improved willingness to try new fruits and vegetables. Moreover, schools participating in the FFVP provided significantly more nutrition education than other schools.
Even more impressive, perhaps, were the findings of a 2015 study published in Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy which compared the BMI scores of Arkansas students at FFVP-participating and non-participating low income elementary schools. The upshot: Participation was found to reduce student obesity from an average of 20 percent to 17 percent, suggesting that the FFVP can also be viewed as “a very cost-effective obesity prevention tool.”
Almost from the beginning, though, limiting the program to fresh fruits and vegetables has been a challenge. Citing the affordability and availability of their own products, lobbyists for fruit and vegetable processors and canners have repeatedly fought to expand the FFVP to include frozen, dried, and canned produce as well.
The financial upside of their fight is limited. (The FFVP’s $177 million budget is minuscule compared to what’s spent on other child nutrition programs.) But, as Politico reported last fall, some in the frozen and canned produce industries are less than pleased with the idea that kids are being implicitly taught that only fresh produce is healthy. Moreover, these companies may hope to get their products in front of impressionable kids to form early food preferences that could pay off down the road.
On the other side of the fight, lobbyists for fresh produce growers point out that there’s hardly a shortage of processed produce in school food. Canned and frozen fruits and vegetables are common additions to cafeteria meals and dried fruits and fruit juices often dominate school breakfast menus. According to the fresh produce lobby, the USDA spent over $2.8 billion on processed produce for school meals between 2010 and 2014, making the FFVP a welcome opportunity for kids to enjoy the fresh, whole versions of these foods.
But now, with the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) pending in Congress, fruit and vegetable processors are working hard to exploit this latest opportunity to muscle their way into the program.
The Senate Agriculture Committee’s CNR bill, which has yet to be voted upon by the full Senate, would allow any schools new to the FFVP to serve up to 100 percent frozen, dried, or canned produce in the first year of participation, but it would require them to incrementally move toward serving only fresh produce by the fourth year. (Schools already participating in the program would continue to serve only fresh produce.) The provision represents a negotiated compromise between the warring factions and therefore isn’t viewed with much alarm by health advocates or the produce industry.
The House Education and the Workforce Committee’s own draft CNR bill (discussed recently on Civil Eats), on the other hand, would go much further. It would allow all FFVP schools to serve “all forms” of produce, expressly stating that the program is “no longer limited to only fresh fruits and vegetables.”
So, what might FFVP snacks look like if the House’s vague “all forms” language makes it into the final CNR bill without further clarification?
No one can say for sure, because the USDA would likely have to issue regulations or a guidance document to help schools comply. The language seems certain to include items like natural fruit roll-ups and canned and dehydrated fruit and vegetables. But it might also allow products like this 100 percent fruit ice, which is already considered a “fruit” for the purposes of the National School Lunch Program, or possibly even items in which fruits and vegetables are only one component, such as fruit yogurt or trail mix:
Whether the House’s expansive “all forms” language will make it out of committee, let alone into the final law, remains to be seen. But given the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program’s proven benefits in its current form, this could be yet another case—reminiscent of the 2011 fight over treating pizza as a school food vegetable—of the processed food lobby’s interests trumping kids’ health. Stay tuned.
Top image courtesy of the USDA.