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Mariann Fischer Boel

Member of the European Commission responsible for Agriculture and Rural Development

The School Fruit Scheme: an investment in the future

Speech delivered during AGRI School Fruit Scheme Conference
Brussels, 15 December 2008

The School Fruit Scheme: an investment in the future

Ladies and gentlemen,

You've already been welcomed to today's conference, but let me first repeat that welcome very warmly.

It's good to see that so many people have taken the opportunity to be here, and I'm sure that this conference is going to be a lot of fun – as well as extremely useful.

I'm an optimist by nature. And more specifically, I'm very optimistic about what the European Union School Fruit Scheme will achieve for society.

One reason for this lies in practical experience.

Last year, when we were discussing the reform of the fruit and vegetable common market organisation, I started carrying out a bit of promotion. I put a bowl of fruit on the table at a meeting of the Commission College. Initially, my colleagues wondered, "What's going on?" - but then they got the idea very quickly. It was a huge success: the bowl was soon empty! Now I put a bowl on the table for every College meeting.

I'm not saying that Commissioners are in the same educational category as children. But if you can teach Commissioners, you can also teach kids about the benefits of a healthy diet!

I should also say that the School Fruit Scheme is a policy which will bring the European Union closer to "normal people". We often hear that some European policies seem rather "abstract" to the public. What happens in Brussels and Strasbourg is not always well understood. The School Fruit Scheme will be a great example of practical, concrete policy in action.

However, you're probably expecting me to give a slightly more thorough justification of the School Fruit Scheme today, so let's go into a little more detail.

Is there a problem to be solved?

Surely everyone knows that yes, there is indeed a problem.

I'll repeat that figure of 22 million that you've already heard today: 22 million children in the European Union who are "overweight".

We don't even need to hear this figure to know the reality. In Europe as in the US, we can see the problem for ourselves, on our streets. There are too many kids aged 14, 15, 16 walking around who already fit into an "XXL" clothing size. Obviously, we have a problem.

As we know, one cause is inadequate consumption of fruit and vegetables.

The minimum daily intake recommended by the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation is 400 grammes. That's the recommended minimum. And only 8 European Union Member States hit that target.

So clearly, there's work to be done in this area. But who should do it? Should diet be a completely private matter for individuals and families, or should the State play some kind of role?

This question is not completely straightforward to answer. But let's note that, in many European countries, the State already does intervene, in several ways.

In general terms, certain kinds of advertising have been more heavily regulated, or banned. Sugar and fatty foodstuffs are no longer permitted in some school vending machines.

(Personally, I think these products should be kicked out of vending machines altogether. There's no justification for having them there. Of course, it's up to the headteacher and the governors of a given school to make the final decision on that.)

In any case, with regard to fruit and vegetables more specifically: of course there already exist fruit and vegetable schemes in several Member States.

As I think you've already heard today, there's strong evidence that these schemes deliver real benefits in terms of children's nutrition and health.

Therefore, when the Council agreed a reform of the rules governing the European Union fruit and vegetable sector in 2007, it also agreed the principle that there should be a School Fruit Scheme at European level.

This is not an attempt to re-invent the wheel. The intention is to build on the experience that has already been acquired in some Member States.

But a European Union scheme makes sense, mainly for two reasons:

  • First, a European scheme will kick-start much more widespread action against a problem which is, after all, present around the European Union. In this sense, it will be especially effective in Member States which have less money available in their national budget. This is very important at this time of economic crisis.
  • And secondly, the scheme will help everyone involved in school fruit programmes to learn from each other, across the European Union. So this will certainly not be a static system; it will be adapted over time.

Within a European Union scheme, we have to strike the right balance between common principles on the one hand, and flexibility on the other hand.

Most of you here already know what the common principles of the School Fruit Scheme will be, but I think it's worth repeating them now, even if I don't go into the detail.

The core element is of course the distribution of fruit and vegetables in schools. This is really the axis around which the scheme will turn. We don't just want to tell children that fruit and vegetables are good for them; we want to give them a regular experience that could become a lifelong habit.

The second element lies in "accompanying measures" – related to education, public health, agriculture and general public awareness. I'm particularly looking forward to seeing measures that help reconnect our kids with farming – for example, through farm visits. Sometimes, I'm really surprised that young schoolchildren just don't know where agricultural products come from. I won't mention the most absurd answers that I've heard. But yes, it should be clear that milk comes from a cow, not from the dairy shelf in the supermarket. If we help kids to understand better where their food comes from, that will be real progress.

Thirdly, there will be networking activities – so that a lesson learned in one national or regional programme can be a lesson learned for all of them.

Finally, of course there will be a strong emphasis on monitoring and evaluating progress, so that we can build on our successes.

So yes, there will be common elements in the Scheme. But there will also be a lot of flexibility.

One area of flexibility concerns the contribution of parents to the Scheme.

During the Council discussions, a number of Member States asked that parents should have to contribute in certain cases. The arguments for and against were not straightforward. In the end, the Council agreed that individual Member States should have the freedom to require a parental contribution in some cases. But there was no reason to make it obligatory for all Member States.

By the way, there are questions to be asked about how parental contributions will affect the impact of the Scheme – so the Commission will be looking at this closely when it reports on the Scheme in 2012.

Another area of flexibility - which was discussed very enthusiastically in the Council - concerns the range of produce to be covered by national and regional schemes.

There was a suggestion at one stage that only fresh fruit and vegetables should be eligible. In the end, the Council decided that this limitation was not necessary. Processed fruit and vegetables can also be healthy food. But Member States will be able to limit their programmes to fresh produce, if that's what they want to do.

Also, the Commission will draw up a "negative list" of products which can't be covered: for example, products which contain too much salt or sugar.

The Scheme will also be flexible with regard to the origin of products (there were suggestions that it should be limited to European Union produce).

On this point, we have a lot of discretion, because WTO rules do allow us to impose restrictions in this sort of scheme.

Member States will be free to use this discretion if they wish. They can give preference to European produce – or perhaps even to regional, local or seasonal produce. (But given that it's quite easy to peel a banana, I could also see products from the Outermost Regions being involved!).

I know that Niels Busk mentioned earlier that the European Parliament would have liked to see a much higher budget for the School Fruit Scheme. But it just wasn't feasible at this stage.

Let's remember that national co-financing will take the budget from € 90 million to € 156 million. Let's also remember that € 90 million will not necessarily always be the European Union contribution that we're working with. When the Commission evaluates the School Fruit Scheme after three years, if you can show that the effects have been positive, there will be immense pressure on the Commission to increase the budget.

This is your "carrot", if you like: if the Scheme is doing well, there could be more funding from the European Union budget!

Let's also remember the possibility of re-allocating unused funds among Member States. This would be an important mechanism for making sure that no money is lost – that every euro in the Scheme is spent on making our children healthier.

Overall, I think our starting-point for the School Fruit Scheme is a good one. Let's improve it when the time is right. We'll base any major changes on our report to be made in 2012.

Don't worry, I'm not going to keep you from your lunch much longer!

But before I finish, let me say again: I really think this will be a very useful conference.

I know that there are already some valuable ideas out there.

This conference is about harvesting those ideas, adding in a dash of experience, and moving towards programmes which can work in practice.

I'm looking forward to seeing the results!

I just mentioned "harvesting". But in fact, the School Fruit Scheme is also about planting seeds. We want to plant the seeds of healthy eating patterns.

These seeds can grow into good long-term habits as our children grow into adults.

(I know that we can't yet put a figure on the likely contribution of the School Fruit Scheme to cutting healthcare costs. But I hope we'll be able to show in due course that it can help.)

Of course, it takes a lot of different things to make a seed grow. The School Fruit Scheme won't work miracles. By itself, it won't turn every child into an Olympic athlete 15 years from now.

But it can help to make sure that those children become healthier and happier adults – who can perhaps chase their own children around the park without sending their blood pressure up and going red in the face.

Let's step forward together. We can make this work.

Thank you, and enjoy the conference!

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