Fruit and veg snack program a no-brainer

We all know diet and nutrition are directly linked to health, and we’re often told we can help make that link by eating plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Yet, as a population, we seem to be getting fatter and unhealthier – a trend that is most alarming in young people as we see childhood obesity rates march steadily upwards.

South of the border, where obesity rates are equally troubling, U.S. first lady Michelle Obama has taken up the cause. She recently unveiled a program called Let’s Move, a national public awareness campaign against childhood obesity that focuses on four areas — helping parents make better food choices, serving healthier food options in schools, making healthy food more available and affordable, and encouraging children to exercise more.

Here at home, we don’t have as compelling a champion as the president’s wife. But there are many different initiatives designed to achieve more or less the same thing, a little known one of which is a school snack program supported by the Ministry of Health Promotion and managed by Ontario’s fruit and vegetable farmers.

It’s currently being run in two regions in Northern Ontario and is designed to promote awareness and increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables by elementary school kids.

The Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association looks after buying and distributing fresh fruits and vegetables to northern Ontario schools, and this year, approximately 12,000 students from more than 60 schools are participating in the program. Over the course of 28 weeks, each student receives two servings a week of fresh fruits and vegetables. More than 80 per cent is Ontario-grown product, making the program a benefit to Ontario school children and farmers alike.

The program was initially launched in 2006, by the Ministry of Health Promotion, as a pilot program following the release of several key reports that underlined the need for action against obesity.

In particular, the Healthy Weights, Healthy Lives report completed by the former chief medical officer of health, Dr. Sheela Basrur, recommended government funding for a fruit and vegetable awareness program.

To my way of thinking, it would be terrific if this program could be expanded to other areas of the province as well. Regardless of geography, it can be hard for cauliflower, asparagus and apples to compete with cookies and chips when it comes to snack options, and we should be doing more to teach and encourage kids to make good food choices.

And, while I understand that the need is particularly great in Northern Ontario where the availability of affordable, quality produce is not as extensive as what we enjoy here in the southern regions of the province, I think all of Ontario’s elementary school children would benefit from more fruit and vegetable consumption. So would adults, for that matter, but that’s another story.

Expanding the program also seems a natural fit with Ontario’s ongoing Buy Local promotion efforts. It definitely has the full support of apple grower Brian Gilroy, chair of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association, who firmly believes that farmers – by virtue of growing our food – are health-care providers too. To him, this partnership between farmers, schools and government is an important investment in the future of the province’s food and health care systems.

In Ontario, we spend 43 cents of every government program dollar — or more than $40 billion per year — on health care. Those expenditures are unlikely to decrease as our population ages and if we continue with our unhealthy food habits.

I know that Ontario is going to have to make some tough financial decisions given the approximately $25 billion deficit we’re facing as we continue our climb out of the recession. But as the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and I for one would love to see more of this type of prevention.

Read this article as published in the Guelph Mercury.

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