In 2016, I was responsible for the report on ‘Fruit, vegetables and milk in schools’ for the European Parliament. This was new legislation which, as the name suggests, provided for the simple and free distribution of fruit, vegetables and milk in schools in all European countries throughout the year. By the end of that school year, almost 30 million children were eating healthier thanks to this initiative.
My work on this issue started with an alarming discovery: Only 12 percent of Belgians and 36 percent of Europeans eat their recommended 5 fruits and vegetables a day, while one in three European children suffers from overweight or obesity. With this in mind, I had multiple objectives: providing healthy food from an early age, introducing food education, combating obesity and promoting and promoting short supply chains and local and regional products. This law is a good initiative for the health of the 30 million children who benefit from it and for short supply chains.
“Only 12 percent of Belgians and 36 percent of Europeans eat their recommended five fruits and vegetables a day, while one in three European children suffers from overweight or obesity”
Of course, this school year is different. The Coronavirus crisis and the ensuing lockdown measures have prevented many European children from going to school, and it was therefore a year when the European initiative was unable to achieve its full potential. On the basis of previous years, however, we can estimate that almost 30 million children benefit from projects every year in 200,000 schools across the EU. The majority of children between the ages of six and ten are involved, but nursery and secondary school classes also have the opportunity to enrol.
It is important to point out that the programme is fully subsidised by the EU for fruit, vegetables and milk. For the school year 2019-2020, €145m was allocated for fruit and vegetables and €105m for milk. We also wanted to celebrate local agriculture. The distribution programmes, with 385 million litres of milk and 65,000 tonnes of fruit and vegetables distributed, make full use of local and regional production. The issue of health is also crucial. One in three European children suffers from overweight or obesity. In adults, this statistic rises to one in two across the continent.
During the negotiations on the legislation, we finally decided on two main points: the first is to prioritise fresh and local products over processed foods; the other is to exclude added artificial sweeteners and flavour enhancers. The distribution of products containing limited quantities of added sugar, salt and fat is eligible for EU funding only as an exception, under strict conditions that include the approval of national health authorities.
“We finally decided on two main points: the first is to prioritise fresh and local products over processed foods; the other is to exclude added artificial sweeteners and flavour enhancers”
Through this project, we want to educate people about the benefits of eating fruit and vegetables, explain their health implications, learn about nature and provide the opportunity to raise awareness about recycling and food waste. But we can do better. I must mention that in a minority of Member States - one of which is Belgium - the authorities have not facilitated the implementation of this initiative.
Red tape, unclear communication on the steps to be taken, late repayments - all of these obstacles have led to initiatives being abandoned. Europe is proposing a simple, practical, educational project, which will be useful for health, agriculture, the environment, as well as being fully subsidised. Therefore, I think everyone really needs to get fully on board and work together in the general interest.
Of course, all of this does not detract from the excellent results of the first years at European level. Thirty million children, whose daily lives are being improved, already represents a victory. Learning to eat a healthy and balanced diet must be a staple to ensure the health and education of current and future generations.