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USDA Program Offering Free Fruits and Veggies Pays Off


According to a recent study from the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, elementary schools across the state of Arkansas that participated in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) experienced a significant drop in obesity rates. Specifically, the study found that obesity rates in schoolchildren declined from 20 percent to 17 percent following the incorporation of the program. 

While earlier studies have shown that the program has led to improvements in fruit and vegetable consumption, this is the first to examine the role of FFVP in preventing excess weight gain. The federally assisted program administered by the USDA introduces kids to a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables that they otherwise may not have the opportunity to try. Eligible schools – which consist largely of elementary schools in low-income areas – receive funding to distribute fruits and vegetables to kids at no cost during the school day, apart from the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP).  

The main goal of the program is to improve children’s overall diet and create healthier eating habits to impact their present and, ultimately, future health. The program also can serve as an important tool in efforts to combat childhood obesity. By providing healthier food choices, expanding the variety of fruits and vegetables children are exposed to, and increasing kids’ consumption of fruits and vegetables, the program helps schools create healthier environments where children can thrive.  

The research team, led by Yiwei Qian, a research associate at the University of Arkansas Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness, looked at a unique data set covering public school children in Arkansas. In 2007, Arkansas’ childhood obesity rates were 37.5 percent in the 10-17 age group, an increase from 32.8 percent four years earlier. The researchers found that once the FFVP began, obesity rates dropped from 20 percent to 17 percent in sampled low-income elementary schools. 

Additionally, the study found that the FFVP not only lowered obesity rates but did so at a lower cost than scientists had previously estimated. The researchers calculated that through the FFVP, it cost roughly $50 to $75 per child each year to reduce the obesity rate by a total of 3 percent. Previous research from 2011 estimated that $280 to $339 per student per year was needed to reduce childhood obesity by just 1 percent. Thus, the results suggest that the USDA’s program is an incredibly cost-effective obesity prevention tool.  

The research team’s work was supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Arkansas Biosciences Institute. The study was published in June 2015 in the journal Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy. 

Click here to read the press release from the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture and learn more about the study.