In a state with some of the highest childhood obesity rates in the nation, a new study shows that a program bringing fresh fruits and vegetables into Arkansas schools not only lowers obesity rates, it can also save hundreds of dollars per child each year to prevent obesity. The study by Arkansas researchers focused on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, or FFVP. The program is meant to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables eaten by students in the nation’s poorest elementary schools. USDA reimburses schools that offer students, at no charge, fresh produce outside of breakfast and lunch. What the researchers found was that once FFVP began, obesity rates had dropped from 20 percent to 17 percent in sampled low-income elementary schools.
“The percentage point difference is 3 percent, and that’s a dent in the obesity problem,” said Mike Thomsen, associate professor of agricultural economics and agribusiness at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. “This is an important finding,” said lead author and division research associate Yiwei Qian, who added that while earlier studies have shown that the program led to improvements in fruit and vegetable consumption, none assessed the role of FFVP in preventing excess weight gain. Qian and Thomsen, along with Rodolfo Nayga, a division professor who holds the Tyson Chair in Food Policy Economics, decided to look at a unique data set covering Arkansas public school children. Arkansas had childhood obesity rates of 37.5 percent in the 10-17 age bracket in 2007, up from 32.8 percent four years earlier.
The study calculated that the fruit and vegetable program costs were about $50 to $75 per child per year to reduce the obesity rate by 3 percent. That’s a staggeringly small cost compared to the $280 to $339 per-student per-year cost of an effort to reduce childhood obesity by just 1 percent as estimated by other researchers in 2011. “By this measure, our results suggest that the fresh fruit and vegetable program is a very cost-effective obesity prevention tool,” Nayga said. “Moreover, prevention of childhood obesity is in addition to the other nutritional benefits that come from increased fruit and vegetable consumption.” Qian, Nayga and Thomsen worked with Arkansas Center for Health Improvement research director Heather Rouse. Their work was supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Arkansas Biosciences Institute. The study was published in the June 2015 journal Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy.
Factors contributing to obesity
The authors noted there were many factors that contributed to obesity in children such as the distance from home to a grocery store with fresh produce, the availability of transportation, as well as educational level, working status, marital status of parents and health knowledge. Areas with limited access to fresh produce have been termed “food deserts.” In an article published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Thomsen and Nayga examined the issue with Pedro Alviola, a former post-doctoral researcher at the UA, and Rouse. Students who live in food deserts can benefit from school-based interventions such as the fruit and vegetable programs, but more research is needed. “There may be things we can do to help the children who live in food desert areas,” Thomsen said. “It may not be big programs to build a supermarket, but it could be efforts in nutrition education such as that being provided by the Cooperative Extension Service through USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education program.”
Tip of the Day
Your turn to cook? For a change, try brown rice or whole-wheat pasta. Use brown rice stuffing in baked green peppers or tomatoes and whole-wheat macaroni in macaroni and cheese or pasta salad.