FPC urges Government to continue to back fruit and vegetables for schools scheme

The Fresh Produce Consortium (FPC) has written to health secretary Andrew Lansley urging him to ensure that the government maintains its support of the school fruit and vegetable scheme (SFVS).

The scheme is part of the Department of Health's (DoH) "five-a-day" programme to increase fruit and vegetable consumption and since its inception in 2004 has seen all fourto six-year-old primary school children receive a free piece of fruit or a vegetable each school day.

Many British growers, inclu- ding Berry Gardens Growers, supply to the SFVS, with some 29 per cent of the produce supplied to schools last autumn coming from the UK.

The scheme's future, however, is hanging in the balance as the government is reviewing its arm's-length bodies including the Food Standards Agency and plans to reform the NHS.

Added to this, the FPC learned from several of its members that the Government is planning to change the scheme's food procurement method from a centralised, DoH-led system to one that would see each of the 150-odd primary care trusts (PCTs) sourcing its own produce.

The FPC - headed by chief executive Nigel Jenney - fears that such a move would be a logistical nightmare for all those involved.

It said in its letter to Lansley: "This will entail significantly more resources for suppliers in terms of approaching and securing contracts on a piecemeal basis, contradicting the Government's aim to reduce bureaucracy for the food industry and simplify trade.

"We urge the UK Government to maintain its support of the SFVS including the central procurement strategy as an established and proven initiative to deliver the establishment of healthy eating habits at a critical age. We look forward to discussing with the Government how the industry can play its part in addressing this critical issue of public health. For the cost of around 10p a day, do we really want to compromise the future health of our nation?"

The FPC's letter was sent just before the Government cast further doubt over the scheme by announcing last week in its white paper, Liberating the NHS, plans to abolish all PCTs by 2013 and give more power to GPs.

It also followed Lansley's announcement earlier this month that the Government is slashing the NHS's Change4Life advertising campaign, which began in January 2009. The scheme aims to encourage people to lead a healthier lifestyle.

Berry Gardens Growers managing director Nick Marston told Grower: "We really value the scheme but it's at serious risk of disappearing quietly. At the moment the fruit and veg is procured by the NHS by an experienced, former multiples fresh produce buyer who knows the fresh produce industry well. If we have crop flushes and shortages he can adjust the deliveries, which are made by DHL, to the schools accordingly."

"If this system was fragmented we would lose this expertise. And if GPs are given responsibility they are not going to start buying fruit and veg on top of their other responsibilities."

NFU Board for Horticulture chair Sarah Pettitt said: "I think that Lansley is right that we need to do more to change the behaviour of people so that they make the right decisions, rather than as he puts it 'nannying them'. So that makes it all the more concerning that there is currently uncertainty over the future of the SFVS.

"If teaching children to make the right decisions when it comes to their diets through giving them a piece of fruit or a vegetable a day is not encouraging behavioural change, I don't know what is."

The DoH said in a statement: "The SFVS will be passed to PCTs. It is important that schemes like this are managed locally.

"The transfer of financial responsibility to PCT allocations is in line with the department's broad policy for local decision-making and accountability for resources to meet local health and well-being needs.

"From 1 April, PCTs became responsible for the ongoing finance for the delivery of the SFVS in their area. For 2010-11, the DoH is currently managing the service level agreement, on behalf of PCTs, with the NHS Supply Chain - this means the funding for the scheme is currently ring-fenced for PCTs.

"Decisions on the funding for the scheme beyond 2010-11 will not be known until after the outcome of the next financial year's spending review."

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