We have been following the story of the “Food Dudes” for a long time. What appealed to us, initially, was the scientific approach. So many efforts to boost produce consumption report only subjective and anecdotal results. So some high school principal claims that the students are not joining gangs as much, getting better grades, etc. all as a result of some pro-produce program. But there is never any control group, never any follow-up, there are rarely objective standards. Really nothing to justify a further investment.
So not surprisingly these programs don’t attract funding, don’t roll out and, ultimately, die.
One program that has not died but has, in fact, grown — slowly but steadily — has been the Food Dudes. We invited Professor Lowe to explain why that is so at The London Produce Show and Conference and we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to find out what kind of future Professor Lowe will unveil at the London Produce Show and Conference:
Professor C. Fergus Lowe
Food Dudes Health Ltd — Social Enterprise
Exciting children to eat fresh fruits and vegetables and to sustain those habits longterm amidst the vast temptations of fatty, sugary junk foods is no easy task, and one that has perplexed and tormented the produce industry. That’s why Professor Lowe’s presentation on the innovative Food Dudes Programme and complementary exhibit at the London Produce Show are certain to captivate and enlighten attendees.
Intrigued by this healthy eating scheme’s significance early on, we’ve been keen to report on the programme’s unique foundational premise and burgeoning success, from its national rollout in Ireland to several trials in England.
Q: With recent news that Food Dudes won a national contract as part of the School Food Plan to reach over 300 English Schools, could you give us a sneak peek at what the Food Dudes are up to?
A: The Food Dudes Programme is still going very strongly indeed in Ireland. The national school roll-out is nearing completion, and will be pretty well in place by this academic year, reaching half-a-million children in schools across Ireland. In the UK, we’ve been making very considerable progress since we established ourselves as a social enterprise two years ago through our partnership with University of Wales, Bangor, where we had our beginnings as a research group developing Food Dudes, utilizing behavioural science methodology.
The multifaceted approach integrates positive role models, repeated tastings and rewards systems to foster a fun and healthy-eating culture and fundamentally transform kids’ eating habits. [Lowe, as Deputy Vice Chancellor of Bangor University, co-founded the programme and continues to champion its progressive development and expansion.]
Q: How are you translating your success in Ireland to the UK?
A: We went in earnest in the UK over that period and built up a very strong base in the Midlands. The programme has run with great success in West Midlands schools, where we’ve gained expertise and created a whole new set of Food Dudes schemes. We’ve worked with local authorities to develop a scheme for nursery-school children ages two to four, and trialed that very successfully. We hope to publish those results soon.
Q: So up until now, you’ve focussed on elementary-aged children, but you see an advantage of channeling younger audiences to circumvent the problem and influence healthy eating before bad habits become ingrained?
A: It’s very sensible to start addressing childhood obesity rates and establishing good eating habits early on in children. In the United States, childhood obesity and the serious health risks associated with it through adult life are alarmingly high, with the UK not far behind. We should be doing everything in our power to prevent it. For instance, data reported by Public Health England, an executive agency of the Department of Health, reveals the extent of the problem:
“The National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) measures the height and weight of around one million school children in England every year, providing a detailed picture of the prevalence of child obesity. The latest figures, for 2012/13, show that 18.9% of children in Year 6 (aged 10-11) were obese and a further 14.4% were overweight. Of children in Reception (aged 4-5), 9.3% were obese and another 13.0% were overweight. This means almost a third of 10-11 year olds and over a fifth of 4-5 year olds were overweight or obese.”
We’re also evaluating the programme in special schools for children with various disabilities such as autism. These children have very high levels of obesity. And the programme works particularly well with them, as our measured results are showing. It’s a very good programme we’ve added to an array of schemes being developed.
Q: Could you elaborate on other concepts you’re exploring?
A: In addition, we’ve developed a new element for Food Dudes, which focusses on the school dining-room experience for all programmes. From our work in the classrooms, we’re now using everything in contemporary psychology to change behaviours and habits during school mealtimes.
Q: What do you mean by contemporary psychology? Could you share some effective techniques and perhaps some strategies to avoid?
A: What we’ve learned is that if you label a meal the “healthy option of the day,” the effect will be palpable that children will eat less of it. But if you say the vegetable of the day is Brussels sprouts or broccoli bake, and this is the “Food Dudes dish of the day,” kids will eat much more of it.
Branding and how you present it are very important. How staff reacts is also crucial. If a staff member doesn’t like a certain vegetable and frowns if a child eats it, that’s not a good role model. You must get staff onboard, creating an environment that celebrates eating fresh produce and encourages kids to taste different varieties.
But first, the programme is in the classroom. We have a new set of movies, brand-new and up-to-date for the modern era. Food Dudes face off against the Junk Punks, which bonds the children in a common cause and gets them fired up to eat fruits and vegetables. Then we begin the dining experience, and the kids come into it ready to make healthy choices.
Q: Are the children able to sustain that momentum and select those healthy choices when confronted by a myriad of food options easily accessible and typically thrust upon them in school dining halls?
A: Every day, schools will serve chocolate cake and custard, usually pitted in competition with a fruit and vegetable basket in a distant corner. We think that’s unfair competition. We encourage schools, as part of the dining experience scheme, not to present the sweet and fatty foods and instead give various attractively presented fruit and vegetable dishes.
Q: You don’t face a lunchroom revolt if the sweets disappear?
A: No, because the first part of the programme makes the kids really enthusiastic about eating fruits and vegetables. The kids happily take the fruit as dessert because they’ve been conditioned in the classrooms. When we remove the cake out of the Food Dudes menus, they don’t complain; in fact, they don’t even notice because of all the other options. When schools do this, it can make a big difference in children’s overall intake of sweet and fatty foods and is very important for staving off obesity. So that’s another new programme development.
Q: In a behavioural approach to alleviating childhood obesity, does the Food Dudes Programme look to marry healthier eating with increased physical activity?
A: We are just about to trial a physical activity programme this year that we’re calling Dynamic Dudes to fit with the Food Dudes Programme to provide an integrated programme to reduce obesity and improve children’s health. Those are the two sides of the obesity coin, aren’t they?
Q: How will the Dynamic Dudes part work?
A: It’s the same principle of behaviour change. In our new movie sequence, we’ve developed the characters to each have their own signature sport or physical activity skill, so we’re setting them up again as role models to promote active lifestyles.
We have introduced this movie sequence into the classroom for about 10 minutes each day and combined it with the model reward system we’ve used before to encourage activity when they leave the classroom and head to the playground. We have a way to track and manage the behaviour with devices to record the children’s activity.
In addition, we sign them up for community-based activities and games that are rewarding for them, and also encourage them to get out and do things in their environment. We worked with the Government Technology Strategy Board to help develop that.
Q: You’re making great strides in taking the programme to the next level, as well as broadening its reach…
A: We’ve got the geographic spread in the Midlands, and now have begun work around Manchester. Our base is in a nice town near Manchester. It was absolutely crucial for us to move there from the University of Wales, Bangor, because we had to be at the centre of England since we’re beginning to build up a lot of projects in the area.
We’re optimistic about working in counties nearby and are heavily involved in contractual discussions. We have a new project in Scotland, which is very exciting for us since we haven’t been in Scotland before. We’ve also got our first project in Wales with special schools. It is going excellently based on initial results. We very much would like to work in Northern Ireland and other parts of England, which is a very big area of development for us. And, of course, a programme in London would be the next strategic area of development.
Q: How does funding work?
A: In Ireland, we are funded directly through the Department of Agriculture. In the UK, we go through a system of decentralization and local decision-making, so our funding comes mainly from the Department of Public Health and public authorities across the UK, with some additional financial support from the National Health Service as well.
One recent significant development is that the government has launched a School Food Plan to encourage students to take up school meals, and is also funding preschool meals for the younger children. As part of that School Food Plan, it has commissioned work both to help aid the quality of food and to encourage take up of this food.
We’ve entered into a full-fledged partnership with the Children’s Food Trust, a charity very respected by the government and by our programme. Through these developments, we anticipate dealing with more than half of the eligible schools in the UK, and that will take us to parts of the UK where we haven’t been before, which is a very good opportunity for us.
The fact of the matter is that our programme produces very big and lasting changes in children’s consumption of fruits and vegetables, and it is the only programme in the UK and actually across Europe that can do that. It’s the only one of its kind to have these kinds of results.
Our issue is to raise our profile so people know that we exist and the value of what we do. So participating in the London Produce Show helps let people know we are here and that we have a terrific set of programmes.
Q: Could you speak to how you quantify results and can confidently make those claims? In the United States, for instance, many school programmes geared towards increasing produce consumption generate wonderful anecdotes from school administrators, teachers, students and parents extolling success, yet the scientific research data has been more challenging to come by. How do you jump outside the subjective feedback to accurately assess a programme’s validity?
A: We are behavioural scientists by training with many decades behind us in research. We’re conditioned to using objective methodologies to access behaviours and have brought those methodologies and that thinking into this work. It’s why we’re effective in what we do, because we take a serious approach to behaviour change.
All the components in our programmes have been established and proved effective, not just by us but by other researchers as well in terms of behaviour change. When looking at behaviour change, you have to take a very rigorous approach and measure results objectively.
It is very interesting to look at methodology on measuring food intake. Asking parents is open to various optimistic biases. Parents tend to exaggerate the amount of fruits and vegetables their children eat. We actually use little of that.
Sometimes we’ve used weighing to compare portions of food before the child eats and then afterward, combined with observation techniques to assess portions before and after, to calculate percentages. More recently, we’ve explored other methods with colleagues at the University of Utah that involve photographing the food before and after and doing a blind assessment on how much has been eaten.
Most interesting, positively, is computer recognition of food. This technology is emerging with great potential, which should be wonderful. A number of people are working on this. We ourselves have recently gotten funding to pursue computer recognition systems with our people in Utah. We could identify particular foods and the quantity that remains after the child has eaten the meal with absolute accuracy. This new analysis would be so objective and also very cost effective.
Q: It could also be less obtrusive and noticeable to the children…
A: Yes, that’s right. You pass the meals under a photographic device; it’s quick and easy and, again, much less costly than having researchers going out there.
Q: Still, since all this scientific data on food intake is done in school, how can you know what occurs when they leave? Do you take into account the possibility that they could go home and eat a big piece of cake?
A: That’s a valid question. And it goes back to some of the conventional methods, doing the telephone interviews with parents and accounting for the biases, and we’ve got the supporting evidence of carry over at home. But this new technology could be integrated into the parental side for an objective record, where parents take photographs rather than relying on their self-reporting.
Q: Do you have some statistics on the impact you’re having with this programme?
A: A doubling of consumption is not uncommon. It happens with variations from school to school and class to class. In recent studies, we’ve been looking at what happens when you increase consumption of fruits and vegetables to the consumption of sweet and fatty foods. What we’ve seen is a direct correlation, with a systematical reduction of sweet and fatty foods averaging 25 to 30 per cent. This is quite significant in terms of addressing childhood obesity problems.
Q: Studies like these must help you in securing the funding to back your expansion plans — that Food Dudes is not just a show of cute characters. At the same time, are you able to prove that these behavioural changes aren’t fleeting and that children continue their enthusiastic consumption of fruits and vegetables as they grow into adults?
A: We spent a lot of time on this issue. We get great effects quite quickly but the key is sustaining these effects. These kids are constantly bombarded by all the marketing of junk foods. It’s all around them, and it’s extraordinarily pervasive. Even in the school environment there are a lot of other temptations. That’s what they’re up against.
As we proceed, our mission is not only defined by increasing the number of schools we’re in; we want to be in retail environments and move to fast-food outlets and get them on our side, promoting the eating of fresh fruits and vegetables. And the home, which is actually far and away the greatest influence, even more so than the school. In the future, we want to take our programmes directly to the home, and we’re now beginning to design all our materials, our movies, websites and videos on YouTube with that in mind.
We have new features in the design of them all. They are much more sophisticated in the animation and pop lines to appeal to kids today. Also, in a novel departure, we run on positivity and fun. That’s part of the psychology — to make eating fruits and vegetables enjoyable. We’re not trying by psychological persuasion to restrict people “you can’t do this, you can’t do that.” For example, we don’t think pushing legislation to ban large sugary drinks is the way to go. So often, negative methods are not the right approach.
The truth is, we need to take on the companies that supply these huge vats of sugary drinks. As a result, you get fat, you’re unable to do things, your skin wrinkles and your teeth fall out. These problems are not farfetched; there is a science behind what we’re conveying. We’re taking on a side of the industry that is not good for the kids.
Q: Are you going to follow these kids that you’re helping to see how they’re progressing through the years?
A: We would love to stay in touch with these children but we haven’t had sufficient funding to do this longterm support. When we get the Dynamic Dudes up and running in the next year, we will be able to start studying a whole range of health indicators over time. And we’ll be looking at public health outlets. It would be a major study, but we think the time is coming.
Q: It sounds like you’re really dedicated to elevate the programme to a new plateau…
A: Basically, I retired from my main role at the university so that I could really drive the programme forward. I hadn’t had the time to seriously take the programme on with other colleagues to a higher level as you say. We’re bringing it to the rest of the UK and looking at other countries as well.
We’re already working in Italy — Sicily and Milan — and publications will be coming out soon from these groups where we’ve seen the good results. We’re actually with researchers in Utah on a US-aid-funded project. We’d like to translate our programme to the US market. That’s a big aim for us because the challenge is great there.
Our biggest effort to get across to people is that changing behaviour is not easy, but it’s the only way to deal with obesity. We have to change what we eat and we have to change our levels of physical activity. But that requires a scientifically driven approach because, as we know, the conventional approaches to education don’t make a blind bit of difference.
We just happen to be one of the first ones to recognise the importance of applying behavioural science here. In other areas, clinical psychology principles are being used all the time with phenomenal success, but no one brings that into the public health domain this way.
I’m the vice chair of a scientific expert panel of the European Union for the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme, which gives 150 million euros annually to member states to use in those efforts. I’ve just been in Brussels again presenting our research outcomes to the 27 members. I’m in a good position to understand what’s going on in the other member programs.
Many don’t grasp the importance of behaviour-based programs — that it’s not just about giving kids fruits and vegetables, but encouraging behavioural change. The EU has made great strides in this direction within the last few years, and now in recommendations coming through, it is going to support the introduction of behaviour-based programs like ours.
We are very interested to hear this presentation and, in fact, it is quite intriguing to see they have convincing evidence of increased consumption of fruits and vegetable as well as an impact on reducing consumption of problematic foods. Yet we suspect that to really get the funding and support that global expansion will require, the researchers will have to go one step further. Increasing produce consumption is fine. It is of great concern to the produce industry and of some concern to the public health authorities. But for most of the world increasing produce consumption is not an end to itself, it is a means to a willed end: A more healthy population.
One can become a vegetarian and live life on a pizza and French Fries centric diet. And, in any case, our knowledge of what the actual health effects of various diets actually are is, to say the least, imperfect. So the real challenge is not to prove just that Food Dudes or any such programs boosts produce consumption, but to prove it boosts public health. Are Irish kids healthier than they were before Food Dudes rolled out, are comparisons with other places in Ireland’s favor since it bought into Food Dudes. These are tough standards.
Perhaps, though, the most inspiring part of the Food Dudes story is Professor Fergus Lowe himself. For he has persevered in the face of skepticism and doubt, he has preserved when others thought they knew the way. He has made great personal sacrifices to devote time and resources to this project. This dedication has allowed the program to evolve and that is often the key to success.
Come see how perseverance has paid off for Professor Lowe and how successful you can be as you absorb all you can at The London Produce Show and Conference.
The show website is here.
Registration is here.
Remember there is also a great program for spouses and companions you can learn about here.