By Mariann Fischer Boel - 28th September 2009
The obesity rate amongst European children is alarming, with 22 million overweight children, five million of which are obese, according to EU agriculture chief Mariann Fischer Boel.
Writing in the the latest issue of the Parliament Magazine's Regional Review, Fischer Boel warned that there are no signs of improvement, to these figures, in sight.
"It is clearer than ever that we need to boost efforts at all levels and in all relevant policy areas if we want to get the European waistlines back into shape. This was also the recommendation of the 2007 strategy for Europe on nutrition, overweight and obesity-related health issues.
Evidently, the common agricultural policy, being instrumental in securing food production and supply in Europe, also has a role to play.
The work has already begun with the overhaul of the school milk scheme in 2008. Previously, high-fat products attracted larger subsidies than low-fat products – which reflected a need to find an outlet for excess EU milk fat production. This has now changed.
Products are eligible for the same level of support regardless of fat content, and to catch children’s interest even more effectively, the scheme now covers a wider range of products: for example, fruit yoghurts and flavoured cheeses.
In the school year 2006/2007, the EU supported the distribution of some 305,000 tonnes of milk to schools in 22 member states. We expect that demand will further increase with the introduction of the revamped scheme.
The EU school fruit scheme, which was launched at the beginning of this school year, is another example of a distribution scheme that is based on society's needs rather than on a need to dispose of surplus produce.
With an annual budget of €90m, the scheme supports the distribution of fruits and vegetables to school kids aged six to10.
Although this amount is matched by funding from the 24 member states that are participating in the scheme this year, it is obviously not enough to support daily handouts to every child in the EU. But a little is better than nothing.
I believe that it was crucial to add the concept of a school fruit scheme to the menu of CAP policy measures. And more importantly, if the scheme delivers tangible results, it will catch on and the demand for a bigger budget will certainly grow.
In some of the countries that have run pilot projects with national funding, the results seem promising. Children have begun choosing fruits and vegetables as snacks instead of unhealthy alternatives. This is indeed good news.
Next on the agenda is the healthy eating campaign, "Eat it, drink it, move it", which will run alongside the two school initiatives. Although funded by the agricultural budget, it is in many ways complementary to the efforts made by health commissioner Androulla Vassiliou's services.
Under the patronage of Belgian tennis champion Justine Henin, the "Tasty Bunch", a universe of sporty cartoon fruits and vegetables, will join EU campaign buses to bring messages about balanced diets and healthy lifestyles right to the school gates.
This year the roadshow will reach a total 18,000 kids; however, the accompanying web site and online treasure hunt will have a far wider scope.
There are many health initiatives at local, regional, national and European level.
This is necessary but we should not lose sight of the fact that the main responsibility for children's eating habits ultimately lies with the parents.
Providing healthy and nutritious food is one of the most basic parenting tasks throughout the animal kingdom.
Unfortunately it is often not a priority in busy families. Parents should also take a much more proactive approach in defining school policy with regard to the sale of unhealthy food and drinks at school - be it in vending machines or in the cafeteria.
What we do from the EU's side can make a valuable contribution to children's health but healthy habits start at home and parents have a huge role to play which the EU neither can nor should usurp."