After cod liver oil, orange juice and milk, schoolchildren were treated to government-issue apples and pears yesterday in the latest attempt to boost the nation's immune defences.

After cod liver oil, orange juice and milk, schoolchildren were treated to government-issue apples and pears yesterday in the latest attempt to boost the nation's immune defences.

Yvette Cooper, the Public Health minister, handed out the free fruit - including bananas and satsumas - to children at Vauxhall Primary School in south London at the launch of the "national fresh fruit" scheme under which every four to six-year-old will be entitled to a piece of fresh fruit each school day. She said: "Every child deserves the best start in life. A healthy childhood provides the foundation for health later in life."

The fruit was supplied by HB Hawkes of New Covent Garden under the £2m scheme but to some pupils it could have come from another planet. Sean Frolish, the headteacher, said: "Some of the children have never seen pears before."

The lack of fresh fruit and vegetables in the national diet has been identified by research as the single greatest cause of ill health, after smoking. Studies suggest that if everyone ate the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, it would cut deaths from heart disease, cancer and stroke by 20 per cent.

None the less, consumption of fruit and vegetables has fallen. In 1983, children were eating an average of three portions a day; this had dropped to two portions a day by the Nineties. One in five children eats no fruit in a week and those in poor families are 50 per cent less likely to eat it than their better-off friends.

For the first wave of the fresh-fruit scheme, 32 schools have been targeted in London and the Midlands. The scheme was included in the NHS plan, published in July, and is due to include every school in the country by 2004. The Department of Health said that it was the biggest programme to support child nutrition since the introduction of free school milk in 1946.

Jaqui Smith, the Schools minister, said the fruit giveaway would be backed up by nutritional standards for meals. Ms Smith said: "We will be introducing compulsory national standards for school lunches - the first in 20 years - from April. Fruit and vegetables will have to be served every day as part of a school lunch."

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