ONLY one in eight Irish schoolchildren is getting free fruit under a European scheme to provide it to schools at no cost.
Despite rising childhood obesity rates, figures obtained by the Irish Independent show just 12pc of primary schoolchildren each year are benefiting from the EU's €90m School Fruit Scheme. That compares with one-third of children in the target age group throughout Europe, and over 70pc in many countries.
Around 70,000 Irish schoolchildren will avail of the scheme this year out of a total primary school population of 540,000, while Europe-wide some 8.5 million pupils receive free fruit.
But while most countries supply the fruit once or several times a week throughout the school year, in Ireland it is only supplied for 16 consecutive days as part of a "Food Dudes" educational programme.
Irish children also get the smallest portion size in Europe – just 62g compared to 136g on average – according to EU Commission figures.
The low participation in the scheme comes at a time when one in four Irish pupils is overweight or obese. Irish schoolchildren consume just half of the recommended five portions a day of fruit and vegetables, and nearly 50pc of that comes from fruit juice, according to a report last year from Safefood.
The EU recently announced a revamp of its €75m-a-year School Fruit Scheme and wants to encourage more consumption of healthy produce.
A recent report from the Department of Education also showed that only 3pc of Irish primary schools have fruit for sale on the premises, meaning most children will only get it if their parents provide it.
However, the Department of Agriculture strongly defended its approach to the free fruit scheme, highlighting the educational aspect of its Food Dudes programme that was fun for kids and encouraged long-term increases in fruit and vegetable consumption.
It said that the Task Force on Obesity had recommended the extension of this programme, and published studies had shown it delivered sustained increases in fruit and vegetable consumption by children who took part.
"Many other countries concentrate on provision of fruit and vegetables. The European Court of Auditors and the Expert Group established by the EU Commission have been very critical of this approach," it said in a statement.
Other countries were going to be obliged to provide educational measures as part of their schemes under the proposed EU revamp, it said.
Some 385 Irish schools are participating in the scheme this year and over half a million children have participated in total since it was launched.
The EU is providing €455,000 in funding to Ireland for it this year and there is a further €2m in Exchequer and private sector funds for it.