Published in last week's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention journal, the results reveal that more access to the products also increased most children's willingness to try new fruits and vegetables.
Fruit and vegetable consumption has been linked to a reduced risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease, and is also said to play a role in weight management by helping to promote satiety and decrease energy intakes. But most Americans- including children- are not consuming enough fresh fruits and vegetables.
US Department of Agriculture (USDA) research published in this month's Journal of the American Dietetic Association, reveals that only 40 percent of Americans have been consuming at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
The fruit and vegetable distribution program tested in Mississippi schools aimed to increase kids' preference for and consumption of these products by providing them with free access to these.
The pilot program was conducted in 25 schools and involved 725 students in grades 5, 8 and 10. Researchers conducted an evaluation of consumption levels in fall before the onset of the program, and again in spring at the end of the school year.
And according to the results, simply increasing children's exposure to fresh products contributed to a significant increase in most kids' willingness to try new fruits and vegetables, as well as in the variety and amounts they ultimately consumed.
But the results also confirmed previous findings that younger children tend to steer away from fruits and vegetables in favor of sweeter, more energy-dense foods. Out of all the children that participated in the program, 5th grade students responded with the least success, with their willingness to try new fruits and vegetables and their degree of preference for fruits and vegetables actually decreasing over the period.
And although the ultimate results of the test program revealed overall benefits on children's diets with students in grades 8 and 10 increasing their consumption of fruit during the school year, vegetable consumption did not increase.
"The results of this evaluation suggest that the distribution of fresh fruit at school free of charge to secondary school students might be an effective component of a comprehensive approach for improving student dietary behaviors; however, distribution of fresh vegetables might be more affective with changes in program implementation. Further research is needed to determine the effectiveness of this type of program among youth," concluded the report.
The USDA's MyPyramid dietary guide recommends 1-2.5 cups of fruit and 1-4 cups of vegetables per day, depending on age, sex and activity level, for a total of 2-6.5 cups. In both the 1992 Food Guide Pyramid and the 5 A Day Program, a 'serving' of most fruits and vegetables is half a cup. So when the new recommendations are combined, they are equivalent to about 4 to 13 servings.
But this is not nearly the amounts actually being consumed by Americans, with the latest research revealing that average intake currently stands at 4.7 servings per day.
According to the latest USDA research, mean intakes by all age and sex groups are below the recommended amounts for fruits, total vegetables, and all subgroups of vegetables with one exception: 12-15 year-olds are currently consuming more than the recommended levels of starchy vegetables, mainly white potatoes, corn and peas.