Fruit for schools plan is a waste of £77m, says nutritionist

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A Government scheme to give all four to six-year-olds a piece of fruit every school day has been condemned by a leading nutritionist as a "ludicrous" waste of money .

Professor Tom Sanders, head of nutrition at King's College London, said the Fruit for Schools project was having a negligible effect on children's health. "It seems ludicrous that the Government is spending £77m on fruit when some schools don't even have clean water fountains that children could use," he said.

"They would be better off spending the money on getting kids to exercise than giving them a banana."

The Fruit for Schools scheme is a important part of the Government's attempt to tackle rising childhood obesity rates. It was originally funded with Lottery money from the New Opportunities Fund, and involved children in the most deprived areas of the country, but last week John Reid, the Health Secretary, announced that all children aged four to six will be included in the scheme by the end of the year. The Department of Health has earmarked £77m for the scheme, which will cover two million children.

Professor Sanders said an evaluation of one of the pilot areas for the Fruit for Schools project had concluded that it had little impact on the diet of children or their families. A team from King's College found that while children ate the fruit they were given, it did not reduce obesity rates, improve nutrition or lead to them eating more fruit. Professor Sanders said: "The effect on children's diet, health and nutrition was negligible. The children ate the fruit when it was given to them, but better nutrition doesn't come from that, it comes from everything else they eat, which is why more affluent children have healthier diets ... The fruit may help children from deprived areas a little, as at least they will be getting some fruit, but it is pointless to roll it out to all children. The problem isn't with primary school children anyway, it is the teenagers who have the really horrendous diets and the problems with obesity."

Professor Sanders said the Government was aware of the evaluation, although there was no mention of it in its press release announcing the extension of the scheme.

Instead, the Department of Health highlighted an NOP survey it had commissioned which showed that a quarter of children said they had eaten more fruit at home as a result of the scheme. But less than half of parents said it had made them more aware of the importance of fruit in a daily diet, and one in five admitted that their children didn't always eat the free portions.

A health department spokesman said: "We think the research shows that children are eating more fruit as a result of this scheme and that it is having a positive impact on their diet and health. This is a long-term project which is about changing behaviour and getting children to think about what they are eating from a young age."