My home is no dietary utopia, but my children are decent eaters and have always been taught the importance of tasting new things. Tasting is pivotal to encouraging children to have a varied and nutritious diet. This is the basis of the Food Dudes programme in primary schools, which aims to get children eating more fruit and vegetables. Over 16 days children taste fruit and vegetables and, in exchange, receive rewards, such as pencils, rubbers and rulers.
According to Bord Bia, which runs the programme, it has succeeded in its aim. Elizabeth Finnegan, healthy eating programme executive at Bord Bia, said: "Evaluations have shown that it sustains long-term increases in fruit and vegetable uptake."
Running since 2007, some 825 primary schools participated in the programme in 2017-18, with 130,000 school children taking part at a budget of more than €3 million.
My daughters were among those children. I had never been a huge fan of the approach taken by the programme, but I resolved to keep an open mind as my two girls embarked on their Food Dudes journey. They gave me the daily rundown on what they were tasting: peppers, cucumber, carrots, mangetout, baby corn, apples, strawberries.
Their initial curiosity and excitement at doing something different at school quickly turned to disapproval. They were not happy about the fruit and vegetables they were being asked to try at school.
Could it actually be turning some children off vegetables they used to enjoy?
I asked if they could bring some home. All the produce was raw, pre-prepared and pre-packed in individual plastic bags branded with the Food Dudes logo. The carrot sticks were dried out, blanched at the edges and bendy in the middle. The mangetout, flown from some far-flung destination, were floppy and rubbery. Apples, cut into segments, were browning and “mushy”. The pre-sliced cucumber was a particular treat, sweating and turning to slime in the bag. Having tasted the raw mangetout, my seven-year-old, who previously ate them happily, decided she did not like them.
While the Food Dudes may be succeeding in getting children to taste vegetables, will they learn to love them? Could it actually be turning some children off vegetables they used to enjoy?
But I had heard directly from some parents about the positive change they had experienced after their children took part in the Food Dudes, with some eating certain previously “hated” fruit and vegetables for the first time.
When, according to Safefood, one in four Irish children is overweight or obese and their fruit and vegetable consumption is still well below the recommended seven a day, any intervention which aims to improve children’s attitudes to fruit and vegetables is to be welcomed. So why does the Food Dudes programme still leave a bitter taste in my mouth?
Food education cannot be boiled down to a simple formula of seven a day. We can and should take a much more holistic approach. We need to teach children where food comes from and empower them with the knowledge and skills they need to eat better.
Giving children pre-prepared plastic-wrapped branded products disconnects them from the source of that food and plays into the hands of big industry that want us to think of food as something that comes conveniently packaged in a plastic bag.
Thousands of tonnes of fruit and vegetables are sourced for the Food Dudes programme each year. While Bord Bia could not confirm how much of the produce is Irish, much of it is imported and the product list includes things like baby corn which will rarely, if ever, be available from Irish farms.
In addition to the countless air miles from produce flown in out of season, the 450,000 portions distributed to schools last year were individually plastic wrapped. That is 450,000 unrecyclable plastic bags going to landfill. This is happening at a time when our children are out on the streets protesting for climate action and we have a very successful Green Schools programme.
What if children were peeling and chopping fruit and vegetables themselves?
There are mixed messages everywhere for children. We have a responsibility to ensure that we do not further confuse the messages. What if this lesson in eating your seven a day tied into the great work of organisations like GIY, teaching children about growing and the seasons?
At a time when our horticultural sector is struggling, what if this programme could benefit and promote our farmers more? What if children were peeling and chopping fruit and vegetables themselves?
Bord Bia is revising some aspects of the programme and is trialling new packaging options, but the current format is the most “obtainable and reachable” way of doing things, according to Elizabeth Finnegan. “We want to make it as accessible as possible.”
Accessibility is key. Any food education programme must be capable of reaching every child in every school. We need to accept that we are often starting from a pretty low base; some children have little or no exposure to fresh fruit and vegetables so any exposure is better than none. The Food Dudes is a start, but we can do a whole lot better; for our farmers and our local economy, for our planet, and for our children. We just need to start joining the dots.
Ruth Hegarty is the director of egg and chicken food projects and consulting, an agency dedicated to working on food business development, food policy and food education projects.