The government's recent announcement of a £2.2 million boost for school food programmes is clearly something that should be welcomed. It includes initiatives such as Breakfast Clubs, where children can opt in for a nutritious start to the day. It also includes opportunities for classes to grow and cook their own food, and the money will help to fund food education within the curriculum.
There are, however, a couple of worrying aspects. A substantial part of this money will go towards supporting the School Fruit Programme announced earlier this year. This has been criticised by leading nutritionists such as Professor Tom Sanders who said that "too much fruit and veg in under-fives can cause malnutrition, as I have found from my studies of vegans." He also noted: "The Government could be doing a lot of damage to a sensible campaign to encourage fruit and vegetable consumption by coming up with inaccurate statements and exaggerated health claims."
The other worrying aspect of this new campaign is support for what can only be described as a rather 'sinister' approach to increasing vegetable consumption among primary children. If exhortations to eat their cabbage and broccoli fail, bring on the Food Dudes.
The Food Dudes programme centres around a video featuring the eponymous Dudes (a group of slightly older peers) who, in the course of their adventures, frequently eat a lot of fruit and vegetables and extol their virtues. The children exposed to this video are told that if they too eat lots of fruit and veg they can join the Dudes in their struggle to save the health of children all over the world and bring about the defeat of the evil General Junk and his army of Junk punks. Prizes in the form of stickers, badges and baseball caps are awarded to children consuming sufficient quantities of targeted foods.
Let us leave aside the issue of whether or not small kids should be exposed to this kind of gang-land sentiment and focus on the alleged claims made for the programme. Professor Fergus Lowe and Dr Pauline Horne, psychologists at the University of Wales Bangor, have conducted an evaluation which awards Food Dudes top marks for increasing fruit and veg consumption among children aged 5-9. In many ways, however, their research is unsettling, being founded on unsubstantiated assumptions that an intake of at least 400gms per day of fruit and vegetables is required by adults – and by small children as well?! In the preface to their non peer-reviewed report 'Changing the Nation's Diet', the authors note that consumption levels such as these "would be extremely good news for the UK growers, processors, retailers of fruit and vegetable products" – which might, of course, explain why these groups sponsored the research to the tune of £ ½ million.
This lack of detachment is worrying since it has the strong potential to introduce experimenter bias into what should be an objective study. In addition, we find that all of the data in the evaluation seem to have been obtained by the same teachers who were responsible for 'spreading the good word' about fruit and veg in the first place through the 'Food Dudes' programme. There appears to be have been no independent scrutiny of the procedures, the measures, recording processes or analysis.
A pilot study of the Food Dudes approach focused on 'fussy eaters' aged 5 to 6 at home, and, it was claimed, transformed veg-averse children into enthusiastic herbivores. It was this 'finding' which was used as justification for the roll-out of the programme in schools. However, the pilot study itself was so seriously flawed that it is impossible to draw any conclusions from it. The increase in consumption of fruit and vegetables (or lack of rejection of such foods) occurred under novel conditions where the children were being videotaped at meal times and receiving additional encouragement from their parents. Behavioural changes, therefore, are more parsimoniously attributable to these factors than to the influence of the programme itself, especially since there seems to have been no control group. The lack of a control here is so unusual that the report would undoubtedly fail any peer-review process.
The absence of a control group is also evident in the subsequent research on the effectiveness of the Food Dudes struggle against the Junk Punks in school settings. Children's consumption of various types of food changes considerably over time without any intervention. The magnitude of such changes, therefore, needs to be measured in order to determine the true significance of effects due to the interventions. There is no such measure reported.
Given these flaws, plus the obvious potential for experimenter biases, what can we conclude? Even if there is a significant effect due to 'Food Dudes', as the authors claim, this is not at all surprising. The design of the programme is a mixture of crude operant conditioning, a bit of social learning and a dash of cognitive behavioural therapy. We would expect that such an intervention would lead to short-term changes of behaviour – possibly up to the 15 months reported. Such changes, however, are unlikely to extend into later childhood and adolescence when peer-group socialisation starts to play a different and more influential role.
The real problem with the Food Dudes programme is that it attempts to demonise certain types of food, and the people who eat them. Such approaches are generally doomed to failure in the long term and may even achieve quite opposite effects to those intended. Certainly, we should be doing all we can to encourage children to eat sensible amounts of all foods required for a healthy, balanced diet. And we should certainly welcome an increase in balanced and evidence-based food education. But Orwellian techniques such as the Food Dudes programme should have no place in our schools.
May 11 2001