Previous studies have linked fruit and vegetable consumption with improved weight management and a reduced risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture published a study in this month's issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association that revealed only 40 percent of Americans consume enough fruits and vegetables; about five cups per day.
In the Mississippi pilot program, free access to fruit and vegetables was provided in 25 schools to 725 students in grades 5, 8 and 10. The researchers conducted an evaluation of fruit and vegetable consumption in the fall -- just before the program began -- and again in the spring, as the school year ended. They found that increased exposure contributed to a corresponding rise in willingness to try new fruits and vegetables, but also confirmed the theory that younger children tend to favor sweeter, more energy-dense foods over fruits and vegetables.
The 5th grade students were the least willing to try the fruits and vegetables, with their consumption of both decreasing over the course of the program, while 8th and 10th grade students increased their fruit consumption during the same time. Vegetable consumption for all groups did not increase.
"The results of this evaluation suggest that the distribution of fresh fruit at school free of charge to secondary school students might be an effective component of a comprehensive approach for improving student dietary behaviors; however, distribution of fresh vegetables might be more affective with changes in program implementation. Further research is needed to determine the effectiveness of this type of program among youth," concluded the report.
According to the USDA's MyPyramid dietary guide, people should eat roughly 1 to 2.5 cups of fruit and 1 to 4 cups of vegetables per day, depending on age, sex and activity level. However, the USDA guide recommends high levels of dairy consumption regardless of those factors, and some health advocates say that, because the USDA is financially linked to the industry it regulates, its advice is biased. Health advocate Mike Adams offers the Honest Food Guide as a free alternative to the USDA's pyramid.