In an interview with www.freshfruitportal.com, Freshfel’s general delegate Philippe Binard discusses what happened at yesterday's (March 2) European Commission meeting where the European-wide School Fruit Scheme (SFS) was on the table as well as another project to encourage milk consumption amongst schoolchildren.
The meeting mainly focused on four key points surrounding whether or not to keep, scrap or change the way the SFS is run in the 25 member states that currently adopt it; relevance, subsidiarity, proportionality and simplification.
According to Binard there was a 'general consensus in the room' as to why the scheme should exist, with acknowledgement of the worrying statistics showing a continuing decline in fresh fruit and vegetable consumption for European children.
Coupled with the rise in overweight kids and the consequent social security costs to member states to treat obesity, there does not seem to be an objection as to why the scheme should be in place.
"The scheme remains as relevant as ever," Binard told www.freshfruitportal.com.
"We were at the meeting which included different representatives of stakeholders from the fruit and vegetable sector and the milk sector, as well as all of the member states.
"The objective of the discussion was to provide an analysis and assessment on the SFS and milk scheme from a number of elements to evaluate whether or not the schemes need to be reconfirmed or amended or need to be withdrawn, and yesterday we spent all day looking at the existing scheme based on the four elements."
Should the SFS continue to run at European level?
The question here is to assess whether the SFS should continue to receive the €90-150 million (US$101-168 million) EC contribution (0.25% of the EU agricultural budget) or whether to hand over more responsibility to member states to run their own schemes.
"I think there was quite a lot of consensus that the problem is a European issue. The scheme is voluntary and we have 25 member states using the system so it has broad acceptance and provides a lot of flexibility for the member states to implement the regime.
"The decline in children eating fruit and vegetables is an EU problem and approaching it from an EU perspective is something that is desirable.
"Also the recommendation of the existing element of subsidiarity is already providing a good response. Consider that school systems around Europe are different. There are countries with and without school canteens; there are countries where the children have no school in the afternoon for instance, or where the children bring in food from home. So across Europe there are different education systems and this is an important point."
From Freshfel’s point of view, as Europe’s leading Fresh Produce Association, changing or cutting the SFS after just five years of existence would spell disaster and potentially lead to the collapse of vital fruit and vegetable promotion in 50,000 schools across Europe.
The organization wants more money to be spent on changing the eating habits of children, not less, so the aspect of proportionality is of particular interest.
"The discussion about proportionality, better regulation and simplification, took up a lot of time in the afternoon session. So on proportionality, it’s whether the solution proposed is proportional to the issue. Obviously from our (Freshfel) side, we consider there is a lack of proportionality, because the budget is relatively low compared to the challenge with only 0.25% of the agricultural budget given to the SFS compared against the social security costs for treating unhealthy eating habits.
"All of that together, from our side, means there is a lack of proportionality in the tools. Proportionality from member states and from the Commission’s perspective needs to assess whether the tools that have been made available are the right ones and provide the flexibility to member states or whether there is an overburden.
"On this point there was a little bit more debate as some member states still believe that implementing the scheme might sometimes be a little bit complex and difficult and they would like to see more simplification therefore there was a strong discussion between proportionality, better regulation and simplification."
Binard pointed out that in 2013 during a reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the Commission increased its support of the SFS by increasing funding to a maximum of €150 million ($168 million), giving a clear indication of its commitment.
"It seems incoherent. The Commission asked member states in Parliament to support the increase in the budget in 2013 and then two years later, just because the people have changed, that they want a review. That would definitely signal a lack of coherence in the actions of the EU."
Freshfel is now preparing a position paper to reaffirm its viewpoint ahead of the next round of discussions and decision-making on the SFS issue.
"Overall, it’s not the end of the discussions. Yesterday's meeting provided the opportunity to share a lot of perspectives and I think the benefit of the SFS is not being disputed because most of the people in the room were like-minded but now it will be up to the European Commission to provide information to the Commissioner on the political side of things.
"We will see how things progress. I believe the Commission intends to provide its own report by the end of the month to be considered at political level.
"In the meantime the scheme will obviously continue."