School Schemes: the fight against obesity is a true European responsibility
As key decisions have to be taken in the coming days for the future of both the School Fruit Scheme (SFS) and the School Milk Scheme (SMS), it’s good to come back to the substance and aim of these schemes created to encourage healthy eating, specifically the consumption of fruit, vegetables and milk. These objectives are still very much relevant and needed, which makes me think that we should not only maintain but also strengthen these EU initiatives, as suggested by the Commission proposal and the report drafted by MEP Marc Tarabella in the European Parliament.
The SFS was set up by the then Commissioner for Agriculture, Mrs. Fischer Boel, and her team for two reasons:
Firstly, the continuous decline in fruit and vegetable consumption was proving detrimental to European producers. According to Freshfel, the European organisation for fresh fruit and vegetables, consumption has dropped between 7 – 10% over several years and as such the WHO recommended daily intake of 400g is far from being reached in most Member States. One of the objectives of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in article 39 (TFEU) is to stabilise the markets for agricultural products and thus this article formed the legal basis for the creation of SFS.
Secondly, the serious increase in terms of overweight and obese children in the EU needed to be addressed. In 2007 it was estimated that in the EU-25 approximately 22 million children were overweight, with 5 million of these children obese. In February 2014 DG Sanco published its report on the “EU Action Plan on Childhood obesity 2014-2020”, stating that it is estimated “that 1 in 3 children in 2010 were overweight or obese, up from 1 in 4 in 2008”. And also explaining that “If we fail to act on overweight and obesity in children and young people soon, this issue threatens to have a highly negative impact on health and quality of life and may overwhelm our healthcare systems in the near future”. Professor Kenneth Rogoff, of Harvard University, has recently added his voice to the debate about obesity. In an article in the Project Syndicate, dated 12th June 2015, he says “Given the huge impact of obesity on health care costs, life expectancy, and quality of life, it is a topic that merits urgent attention”.
SFS Action and Experience
In 2007 the negotiations on reform of the market organisation for fruits and vegetables were underway. The reform was adopted unanimously by the Agricultural Council. As part of the final compromise the Commission was invited to present a proposal on an EU school fruit scheme based on an evaluation of the costs and benefits. The Commission services carried out an impact assessment (IA), which followed comments from the Impact Assessment Board, and was then further refined and developed and subsequently given the green light. The arguments in favour were, and still are, compelling. The purpose of an effective SFS is to bring about a permanent, lifelong change in dietary habits in favour of the consumption of fruits and vegetables.
When the SFS was adopted in 2008, only a few of the more affluent Member States, such as Germany, Denmark, Belgium, Netherlands, Ireland and the UK, had national school fruit schemes in place. The national schemes varied considerably in terms of scope and measures, with little homogeneity, lack of coherence and focus. Since adoption of the SFS the experience has been quite positive. In 2013/2014 school year almost 10 million children benefited, 66,000 schools, and 67,000t of products were distributed. 25 out of 28 member states participated. The UK, Finland and Sweden do not participate. The UK has chosen not participate on the grounds that it has its own programme, costing £40 million a year. Finland would have liked to participate, agreeing with the scheme’s measure and objectives, but finds the administrative burden too high. Sweden is the only country which refuses to participate on grounds of principle i.e. not an EU justified action.
Problems with SFS
Problems have particularly surfaced with regards to the size of the EU budget, the share of EU co-financing and the eligibility of the accompanying measures (awareness measures).
In relation to the size of the EU budget, experience has shown that in times of pressure on public budgets, many schools could not afford to participate. Even with 75% EU co-financing the national contribution is too burdensome. In some cases, in order to get around the budget constraints, SFS schemes rely on parental contribution. This has the unfortunate effect of limiting the SFS to more well-off children and regions, where the prevalence of obesity is lower compared to the socially disadvantaged areas and children of the EU. The consequence has been that those children most in need of an SFS, in terms of consumption of fruit and vegetables and changes in diet, do not participate in the SFS.
In order to address this problem, the Commission proposed, as part of the CAP 2020 reform, to increase the EU budget from 90 to €150 million, to increase the co-financing rates to 75% in general and 90% for the disadvantaged areas, and to make more of the accompanying measures eligible. The accompanying measures are a central theme in the school fruit scheme. The accompanying measures are there to bridge the gap between schools, farms, the countryside, the environment, healthy lifestyle and healthy diet. It is expected that the changes will allow many more schools and school children to benefit from the SFS. The increase in budget should certainly be welcomed but, as the IA made clear, the budget should have been a minimum of €400 million annually to cover all eligible schoolchildren in the age group from 6 to 10 across the EU. The figure is, of course, even higher if you expand the age group.
The SFS fulfils the subsidiarity test of being voluntary and having a high degree of flexibility for Member States in terms of implementation. It is, however, not really proportional, given the scale of the obesity problem and the risk of the explosion of future health costs, which would warrant a much higher budget to assure full cover. Action at EU level is fully justified given the demonstrated high Member State participation in new programmes put in place, and the fact that the disappearance of the SFS would risk reverting back to the pre-SFS situation and a loss of EU solidarity. A higher budget, constant improvement and effective implementation of the SFS is needed, not abolition.
The SMS has faced different challenges than those of the SFS, having received a very negative report twice, contrary to the report on SFS. The SMS has, at times, been criticised as being a surplus measure. For example, at one stage aid was to be given exclusively to fully fat drinking milk in order to get rid of as much milkfat as possible.
One of the main problems with the SMS was the element of deadweight, with the level of aid representing a very small part of the price with consequently little, or no, additional consumption. Other problems related to the lack of accompanying measures, heavy administrative burden and questions about the health of dairy products with high fat content.
However, the scheme has been revised several times and the list of eligible products has expanded to include low-fat milk and milk products, whilst maintaining the absolute level of aid per kilo. This means that de facto the incidence of aid is proportionally higher for the low-fat products given the lower cost price. As to the issue of health, there has been a complete turnaround in the opinion amongst experts, now judging milk and milk products in a much more positive way, pointing to the beneficial aspects of dairy products with regards to calcium, proteins, minerals and vitamins, and other nutrients as part of a balanced diet. The debate about animal fats, saturated and unsaturated, has become much more nuanced with recent scientific studies showing the positive health effects compared to vegetable fats.
All these elements explain the proposal from the Commission, from 30th January 2014, to strengthen the SMS, not least with the element of obliging Member States to introduce accompanying measures, as is the case with the SFS. These changes will allow the SMS to become a much more viable and justified measure, leaving the objective of surplus disposal behind and instead becoming a true instrument to further a healthy lifestyle, a balanced diet and to fight against obesity.
The fight against obesity remains a complex problem. The SMS and the SFS certainly do not provide magical solutions in the fight against obesity, but do offer an important contribution to this fight. They should be maintained and strengthened to serve their purpose in an effective way. It is a true EU responsibility. Public support is there.