A recent study by researchers at the University of Arkansas found that the federal Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program decreased childhood obesity rates in elementary schools by 3 percent at a cost of only $50 to $75 per student per year. That’s significant. Previous studies looking at other strategies to reduce childhood obesity rates estimated costs of $280 to $339 per student every year to move the needle by a mere 1 percent.
Let’s hope that Arkansas Sen. John Boozman is aware of this newer study’s results. He’s on the Senate Agriculture Committee, which is set to vote this week on legislation reauthorizing federal child nutrition programs, including taxpayer-subsidized breakfast, lunch, and snack programs in the nation’s schools. Sen. Boozman advocates for alleviating childhood hunger in his state, but he also supports “flexibility” for schools to reduce food and financial waste. This translates to giving schools the option to not serve children fruits and vegetables. Giving schools a pass on this important provision in the Child Nutrition Act means giving up on a generation of children.
The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program
The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program is a federally-assisted child nutrition program that provides free fresh fruits and vegetables as snacks outside of school meals to elementary school students. Elementary schools with at least 50 percent of students receiving free and reduced lunches are eligible for the program. Eligible schools receive $50 to $75 per student to implement the program over an entire school year.
The goals of the program are to improve children’s overall diet and create healthier eating habits to impact their present and future health expand the variety of fruits and vegetables available to children, exposing them to new flavors and increasing their fruit and vegetable consumption.
These are critically important goals, but they can’t be achieved if Congress does not maintain the programs and standards set in the 2010 reauthorization of the law. Fresh fruit and vegetables are high in fiber, vitamins and minerals, and contain essential nutrients that support children’s growth and development. When children consume too many unhealthy foods high in fat, sugar and sodium in lieu of healthy foods, they are more likely to become obese and develop diet-related health conditions.
The Costs of Childhood Obesity
Approximately 18 percent of the 24.7 million elementary school-aged children in the United States are obese. Beyond the obvious health risks that are associated with being obese, there are societal costs as well. Researchers at Duke University estimate that the lifetime obesity-related medical cost for just one obese child is $19,000. If childhood obesity rates remain the same, Americans could be saddled with $83 billion in obesity-related healthcare costs over the lifetime for our current generation of children.
Expanding on Arkansas’s Success
What would happen if the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program were implemented in all public schools nationwide?
I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations based on the Arkansas study’s findings. We estimate that the cost of offering the program for all children during their entire elementary education ($50 per child for 24.7 million children for five years) would amount to $6.1 billion. Assuming students experienced the same impacts on weight, obesity rates would drop from the current 18 percent to 15 percent nationwide, reducing those children’s lifetime obesity-related medical costs from $83 billion to $69 billion. That would save families, health insurers, and taxpayers $14 billion.
In other words, spending $6 billion to implement the program would save $14 billion in healthcare costs over the current elementary school generation’s lifetime. Now that’s a return on investment I’d be willing to make.
Earlier this year, UCS released the report Lessons from the Lunchroom: Childhood Obesity, School Lunch, and the Way to a Healthier Future, which documents the importance of healthy school food, and how it can change their eating habits for the better. We’ve recommended that Congress prioritize fruits and vegetables in schools, at meals and also with programs like the FFVP that enable them to offer these healthy foods as snacks between meals.
We did our homework on the benefits of fruits and vegetables. Before next week, we hope the members of the Senate Agriculture Committee will do theirs. But, in case they need a little encouragement, you can send them a letter today!