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Will All Efforts To Boost Produce Consumption Wind Up Being Co-Opted By Other interests?  European School Fruit Scheme IS Under Pressure To Add Other AG Items. Schoolchildren Apparently Also Need Flowers!

Freshfel, the European Fresh Produce Association, based in Brussels, Belgium, was concerned about proposals to integrate produce with other agricultural products in school programs. It issued a statement:


Freshfel Europe has sent a letter to Commissioner for Agriculture, Dacian CioloÅŸ, questioning the appropriateness and the timing for the Commission consultation on the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) schemes providing agricultural products to school children. The association expresses serious concerns in regard to the policy options envisaged in the consultation, which it finds would be extremely detrimental for the School Fruit Scheme (SFS).

Freshfel Europe — together with Aprifel, AREFLH and EPHA (the European Public Health Alliance) — has addressed a letter to Commissioner CioloÅŸ on the public consultation on CAP schemes for milk and fruit distribution in schools which outlines several options now open for debate. The organization starts by questioning the timing of the consultation, and suggests postponing it until the SFS improvements under the CAP reform (increased budget to enhance accompanying measures and raise the level of the co-financing) are introduced, consolidated and monitored, and the planned evaluation for the School Milk Scheme (due after the summer) is finalized.

Saida Barnat, Scientific Director of Aprifel, and member of the EU SFS Group of experts, commented: “Considering a greater integration of these schemes or even widening further the scope of the products would hinder any consensual communication efforts and will put into question the high level of health protection to children, one of the primary objectives of the SFS.”

Quoting the vice president of the group (Margherita Caroli, MD PhD, in pediatric nutrition), she continued, “No other agricultural product besides fruit and vegetables, is scientifically justified for further promotion to children at schools.”

The letter also highlights the specificity of the products and the logistics of the two schemes, which widely differ and for which a merger would be to the detriment of the need for frequent distribution of perishable products. The letter further observes that while all the objectives mentioned in the consultation paper (i.e., the disconnection of consumers and children with agriculture, the increased globalization and modern way of life, the consumption of highly processed foods high in sugar and fat, the fight against obesity and overweight, the help to small scale farmers by shortening the marketing chains, granting farmers a bigger share of the price to the consumer, the climate change mitigation, the seasonality, the waste, etc.) are laudable objectives, they should not be part of a school program, and can be reached through other CAP instruments.

Diluting SFS messages would weaken the scheme and the efficiency of accompanying measures. Moreover, monitoring and controls would become extremely complex.

Philippe Binard, General Delegate of Freshfel, stated: “In a time of budgetary constraints, it is important to have well-structured, well-funded and efficient policies, and we urge the Commission to first further improve the SFS without jeopardizing its achievements so far.” He concluded: “When launched, the SFS was built on the basis of increasing fruit and vegetables consumption together with a clear health objective. Its merits are more than ever valid today and should not be undermined!”

A ringing statement to be sure! We’ve spoken with Secretary General Binard many times, including these pieces:

Ten Years, Ten Lessons Learned: A Look At The European Produce Industry Through The Eyes Of Freshfel’s Philippe Binard

Pan-European School Fruit Scheme

In Defense Of Cosmetically Challenged Produce

The issue of how best to increase produce consumption among school children is a transatlantic concern, as is the public policy question of how such programs should be funded and organized, so we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Philippe Binard
Secretary General
Freshfel Europe
Brussels, Belgium

Q: Why is Freshfel Europe expressing serious concerns to the Commissioner for Agriculture regarding policy change considerations to the European Commission’s CAP (Common Agriculture Policy) schemes providing agriculture products to school children?

In your eye-opening interview last October commemorating Freshfel’s 10th anniversary, you tackled our challenge to pinpoint the 10 main issues on Freshfel’s agenda, reflect on the lessons learned and forecast challenges going forward. Number one on your list was stagnating produce consumption. This problem tied into the other issues on your list. However, it’s poignant that you concluded with Number 10, where you emphasized the importance of the School Fruit Scheme in reversing the problem…

A:  Insight on this problem involves a little open-ended politics. I need to be sure to extract the relevance for a more U.S.-oriented audience. Not focusing on European Union “inside politics,” the European Commission is looking for a number of options for maybe improving the functioning of schemes under the Common Agriculture Policy targeting children. The main trouble is that these latest proposed changes are misdirected and will undermine the school fruit scheme.

Q: What sparked the proposed changes and why do you view them as detrimental?

A:  For the time being, the scheme on milk has been there many years and seems not to be working satisfactorily from a good management principle. It has been criticized by audits. We have a relatively young system with our School Fruit Scheme, now three years in its infancy. The European Commission is looking at whether the school fruit scheme needs to have its own functioning or in simplification should be merged with other agriculture products; that there could be a benefit of extending the school scheme to a broader range of products.

This is where we came in arguing with the Commission that this is not a bright idea. The background or the specifications of how and why the existing schemes came about are quite different.  The main reason for the fruit scheme and why the background is important is the need to educate children on fruits and vegetables because they are good for health. They need to get used to the texture and taste. If you look at the main reason for the milk scheme, it was introduced because there was too much milk product in the EU, so it was a way to get rid of the excess.

When you have public money, it’s important to know how to monitor the program and see the benefit of the program, and a broader scheme defeats the ability to do that if you add milk, grain or cereal or meat product in the scheme. There are even talks about adding flowers.

Q: Is agriculture the only commonality between such seemingly discordant products? What benefits could accrue to school children in this scenario?

A: The Commissioner wants to reconcile the scheme with nature and life. He wants to bring in flowers. The broader it is, the more difficult if you want to monitor the scheme.  How do you validate the result of such action? 

Q: This sounds like a case of diverting focus from the original objective…

A: If you have such a broad scheme, it helps shorten the supply chain and eliminate food waste, but the Commissioner is mixing issues.  We need a clear objective. If we dilute the program, it defeats the purpose of what we argued to the EU as the impetus for the school scheme — the stagnation of produce consumption — and it will be very difficult to monitor.

Q: Weren’t there other developments underway for the School Fruit Scheme more to your liking? What happened to the proposed increased funding that had been gaining ground?

A: For the time being, there are proposals already on the table in the current reform of EU policy to improve the fruit scheme. We should give those a chance first and take the steps to improve the scheme by raising financial support. Now, when you participate in the scheme, the EU is supporting 50 percent of the product. There is a financial proposal to raise the EU contribution to 75 percent.

Another element of the proposal is to have the EU co-finance the accompanying promotion measure that needs to be taken in any school scheme. If you don’t have activity to educate the children, the scheme won’t be effective. This is something that had to be financed by each of the countries. This could help to convince more countries to jump into the system. So instead of looking to merge milk and vegetables or extend the scheme to other products, we say first do the financial proposal already on the table rather than launching a new broader scheme.

Q: Is there wide discrepancy in the implementation and success of the school fruit scheme from country to country?

A: There are countries strongly using the scheme– Italy is the biggest user. It receives close to 20 million Euro out of 90 million available for the school scheme.

The UK hardly uses it. It has a system that is not aligned with the EU’s.  The UK’s school scheme goes through its National Health Service with other parameters. It prefers to go its own way, which is very specific to the status of the UK in the EU, going back to Margaret Thatcher, who famously said, “I want my money back.”

When the funds are being distributed, the EU has to supply money to the UK as well, but if it’s not used, the budget is given to other member states.

As far as the distribution of money for the fruit scheme by country, the second biggest is Germany. If we take the whole budget, Germany will have 11.5 million Euros, Poland close to 10 million as well as Romania, and then France and Spain, both with roughly 5 million.  

Q:  Do you have studies that track progress and target areas for improvement within different countries to validate the need for the scheme and build your case for increased funding?  In the U.S., there is a concerted effort to monitor and document success of initiatives to increase fresh fruits and vegetables in schools. How complicated is such an effort in Europe, where you have such a fragmented system?

A: We don’t monitor it ourselves. There are groups of experts appointed by the EU. When we look at the evolution, each year the number of children participating in the program doubles. In year one, there were 2 million; year two, 4 million; and now in year three, it’s 8 million to show something is going on. I won’t say it’s ideal. There are things that could be improved.

Q: What would those improvements be?

A: For us the weakest point is communication of the scheme within the EU national system and sector. The way it’s implemented, there is a lot of fragmentation. The schools depend on local districts and not in regional or national context, so solutions have fallen at the local level, which translates to lost opportunities in logistics. If the program could organize on a national basis, logistics could be improved. People often don’t even know about the program or how to get involved in it.  Especially with teachers, parents, and school managers, they say, we’ve never heard about it, where can we apply?

There’s a mismanagement of communications at the EU that the scheme is available, and at the national level more could be done. There is opportunity with the proposal for the EU to co-finance members’ accompanying promotion and education.

Q: What is the current status? Is the proposed budget increase for the school scheme likely to pass?  Has that been tempered by larger fiscal concerns and the market’s economic volatility?

A: It’s on the table now almost 18 months because it has a budget. Just like you have the fiscal cliff in the U.S., we have something similar in the EU. There are major discrepancies between the Commission’s proposal for the whole budget and what member states are willing to accept. The member states are reducing budgets.

Our budget line for the school scheme is 90 million Euros for the time being, and with the proposal to change it to 150 million Euros, that budget line for 2014 to 2020 has not been affected, However, as long as there is no final deal with the budget, the approval for the school scheme is dependent on that.

Q: What happens if the broader scheme to merge milk and other agriculture products goes forward?  Could that derail all your progress?

A: The matter is not over for the broader scheme. We’ll see what the main message of the Commission will come out of the consultations in progress. We have strong support, yet we can not rest on our laurels. We must remain vigilant.

Q: Isn’t there a lot more work to be done to build meaningful long-term results in changing children’s eating habits and increasing produce consumption?

A: The scheme exposes children to new eating experiences. To really make a difference, we come to the EU to argue it needs to be much more ambitious. The 90 million Euros corresponds to one piece of fruit per child per week. With one piece, you won’t change eating habits of children, and the scheme needs to be accompanied by more educational programs.

The most effective cases are where the programs are more intense with measures to raise awareness and bring the message home to benefit the family. The comprehensive programs show something happening from the health aspect and overall attitudes of the children.

What’s important is to include diversity of produce. In an apple-producing region, what is brought to school are apples. If the supplier in Spain distributes oranges or mandarins, the likelihood is the children are used to the taste because they have them in their backyard garden. It’s important for kids to discover new products, learn to cut a kiwi or how to prepare broccoli or carrots. These elements of diversification are happening, but need to be more.

The reason why implementation is by the countries is because there is so much diversity.  Take a country like Germany, where it’s done by different regions.  In Spain, the different regions all have their own schemes. Italy also is administratively divided into five regions just to show you the complexity of the situation. The School Fruit Scheme is one of many issues we are involved in. These matters often are not easy to communicate with all the technical aspects and regulations and, of course, there is always politics that gets in the way.


One could argue that there are legitimate concerns over logistics efficiency and program monitoring efficiency, which could be addressed by this kind of proposal to broaden the scope of the program from just produce to all kinds of items.

Mostly, though, it sounds like an effort by other agricultural interests to hop on what they perceive as a gravy train and, to mix metaphors a bit, grab their piece of the pie.

This is, of course, the key problem with any large scale government program. For some reason, people who assume that the individuals in business are always selfish, somehow assume that the individuals who work in government are unfailingly selfless. These people need to study Public Choice Theory:

Public choice takes the same principles that economists use to analyze people’s actions in the marketplace and applies them to people’s actions in collective decision-making. Economists who study behavior in the private marketplace assume that people are motivated mainly by self-interest. Although most people base some of their actions on their concern for others, the dominant motive in people’s actions in the marketplace — whether they are employers, employees, or consumers — is a concern for themselves.

Public choice economists make the same assumption — that although people acting in the political marketplace have some concern for others, their main motive, whether they are voters, politicians, lobbyists, or bureaucrats, is self-interest. In Buchanan’s words, the theory ‘replaces… romantic and illusory… notions about the workings of governments [with]… notions that embody more skepticism.’

In the past, many economists have argued that the way to rein in ‘market failures’ such as monopolies is to introduce government action. But public choice economists point out that there also is such a thing as ‘government failure.’ That is, there are reasons why government intervention does not achieve the desired effect….

One of those key reasons is that whatever the noble intentions of a program at its start, concentrated interests will tend to bend the program to their own interests. These interests change the incentives for individual politicians and bureaucrats and thus the government bends in their direction. Voters typically have little knowledge of these programs and are little impacted by the small per person cost. So, as Theodore Lowi explained in writing of the Iron Triangle the programs proceed to benefit the interest groups, not the general public.

The organic community is starting to feel this, as large food companies are now getting interested in organics and will push to have rules bent to fit their interests.

Since the produce industry is not the most powerful interest, it stands a good shot of seeing its programs, if they obtain enough scale, being distorted.

So a program focused on making children healthy by changing their dietary patterns may soon be giving out cheese and flowers, etc. Thus, the earnest pleas from our European friends for program purity and focus.

One caution we would add is that there is a tremendous risk when the industry supports programs that are not of a sufficient scale to make a difference. Yes, of course, we know that many times one takes what one can get and then hopes to build. But if giving out one piece of fruit a day doesn’t change consumption or health metrics in a verifiable way, the industry itself runs the risk of being perceived as just another special interest group. It is difficult to do politically sometimes, but we would be better off doing an effective program, as a pilot study, on 10% as many students, than ineffectively giving fruit to ten times that number. This is because an effective study would provide the intellectual ammunition to call for substantial additional funding. Failure to prove effectiveness makes the whole future of the program a matter of politics.

Many thanks to Philippe Binard for helping us to think about such issues.

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