The National School Fruit Scheme, the first government-funded scheme of its kind in the world, will give all four to six year olds in infant and nursery schools a free piece of fruit each school day by 2004.
Evidence from around the world shows that eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day could help to prevent diseases such as heart disease, cancer and asthma.
It is the second most effective strategy in preventing cancer after reducing smoking. Recent research showed that one in five children eat no fruit and
those in low income areas eat the least.
The secretary of state for health, Alan Milburn, today joined children at a school in London when they received their free fruit. The expansion of the national fruit scheme comes on the same day that Mr Milburn announced new health inequalities targets to close the gap between areas of lowest life expectancy and the national average.
Mr Milburn said: 'Tackling cancer and heart disease means investing in prevention as well as treatment. We need to stop people becoming ill as well as treating them when they do. Experts agree that eating fruit and vegetables is the second most effective way to prevent cancer and heart disease after reducing smoking.
'This is the biggest government programme to improve childhood nutrition since the introduction of free school milk. It will enable thousands of children to get free fruit when they go to school.
'I want every child to get the best start in life - so they all get the opportunity to do well. Children from the poorest families eat less fruit and vegetables. People in the poorest areas also have the highest rates of cancer and heart disease. We will provide a healthy boost for 80,000 children in the poorest areas from today.'
School children in over 500 schools will receive free fruit as part of the scheme. The pilots in 25 areas, mostly in Health Action Zones, will focus on the best way of supplying the fruit to the school.
The schemes are being developed with teachers and the food industry (including caterers, suppliers, and growers), together with health, children's and parent's organisations.
Studies show that eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day could lead to estimated reductions of up to 20 per cent in deaths from heart disease, cancer and stroke.
Evidence also suggests that fruit and vegetable consumption among children has fallen in the last 20 years and that children growing up in disadvantaged families are about 50 per cent less likely to eat fruit and vegetables. These inequalities are reflected in health differences later in life - those in low income groups are more likely to suffer cancer and heart disease.
Secretary of state for education, David Blunkett, said: 'This scheme has an important role in encouraging children to eat healthily. This project also complements the new compulsory minimum nutritional standards for school lunches, which come into effect this April. Our£8m 'healthy schools' programme has healthy eating as one of its key themes.'
Food Standards Agency Chair, John Krebs said: 'The Food Standards Agency has a key role to play in the cross-government activity to improve the national diet. Young people are still not eating enough fruit and vegetables so it's great to see
this scheme get up and running. By encouraging healthy eating habits at an early age we can really make a difference to their health.'
Visiting another of the schools taking part in the scheme, food industry minister, Joyce Quin, said: 'This is good news, both for England's school pupils and for the UK horticulture industry. Encouraging people to eat more fruit should have great health benefits and will help towards meeting the recommendation of health experts of five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. It will also encourage a wider consumption of fresh produce.'
1. The NHS Plan set out the government's commitment that every child in nursery and aged four to six years in infant schools will be entitled to a free piece of fruit each school day by 2004. It will be the biggest programme to support children's nutrition since the introduction of free school milk in 1946.
2. The first 33 school fruit pilots in London and Leicester were launched in November 2000. Early results have indicated that the scheme is being extremely well received by schools and health authorities.
3. The National Diet and Nutrition Survey, which surveyed over 2,000 4-18 year olds, was published in June 2000. It found that:
- Compared to expert recommendations of at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, children eat on average two. By comparison, adults eat on average three portions.
- Children's consumption of fruit and vegetables has fallen since 1983. They were low in 1983, averaging about 3 portions a day. By the late 1990s, they were even lower, at only two portions a day.
- One in five children eat no fruit in a week. Three in five eat no leafy green vegetables. Even those who eat fruit and vegetables eat less than one portion of each a day.
- Children in low income groups are 50 per cent less likely to eat fruit and vegetables.
- Diets of school children are heavily dependent on foods which are rich in fat, sugar and salt. Boys eat by weight, nearly twice as much biscuits than leafy green vegetables. Girls eat by weight more than twice as much sweets and chocolate than leafy green vegetables.
4. Around 80,000 children in 500 schools will be receiving the free fruit every school day.
The schools receiving free fruit will be in 25 areas. They are:
Barking & Dagenham, Bradford, Brent, Corby, Cornwall, Dartford, Gravesham & Swanley, East London & the City, Hull & East Riding, Lambeth, Southwark & Lewisham, Leicester, Luton, Manchester, Salford & Trafford, Merseyside, North Staffordshire, Nottingham, Portsea Island, Sheffield, Slough, South Yorkshire Coalfields, Tees, Tyne & Wear, Wakefield, Walsall, Widnes, and Wolverhampton.
5. Evaluation of the pilot schemes is being carried out on behalf of the Department of Health by the National Foundation for Education Research and ADAS Consulting Ltd.
6. The World Health Organisation recommend that people should eat at least 400g (5 portions) of fruit and vegetables every day, primarily to reduce the risk of cancer.
Researchers have found that eating more fruit and vegetables can reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels and is accompanied by an increase in levels of beneficial compounds, such as antioxidants in the blood. Studies also suggest that eating fruit and vegetables can improve lung function and reduces the risk
of asthma and bronchitis - among children and adults.