Policymakers looking for ways to help kids eat less junk food and more fruits and vegetables may have one easy solution -- pushcart vendors.
Researchers reported that kids passed up ice cream and cotton candy to buy bagged fresh mango and jicama from a fruit vendor in Oakland, Calif. -- and said encouraging such sales might be one of many ways to help children eat better.
Dr. June Tester of Children’s Hospital & Research Center in Oakland and colleagues watched whether children at one Oakland school bought fruit and vegetables from the vendor, known as a frutero, for 14 days in 2008.
“The frutero sold an average of nearly 18 bags of fruits and vegetables each afternoon during an average of 26 minutes of sales, and sold an overall 248 bags during the 324 minutes of observed sales,” they wrote in their report for the journal Preventing Chronic Disease.
The kids bought the bagged mango and jicama cubes even when vendors were selling ice cream and cotton candy nearby, Tester’s team found.
The school population was mostly black and Hispanic, and the fruteros are a familiar sight on the streets of Oakland. “However, local regulations prohibit mobile food vendors — including these fruteros — from selling near schools and parks,” Tester’s team wrote. “Such regulations exist in other cities such as Phoenix, Arizona; San Antonio, Texas; San Diego, California; and San Jose, California. We are unaware of any school or city policies that encourage improved food access for schoolchildren through mobile vendors.”
But Tester’s team got a waiver. “In October 2008, we obtained school permission for a single frutero to sell fruits (eg, mango) and vegetables (eg, jicama) at the entrance to the school property at the close of each school day. The frutero sold products that had been precut and packaged in a central kitchen into snack-sized bags holding a one-half–cup serving. Bags were chilled with ice and sold for $1.50.”
The researchers counted 233 customers during this time, and 59 percent of them were elementary-school students. “It was found that children and adults bought more fruits and vegetables from the fruteros even in the presence of other vendors selling non-nutritious foods,” they wrote. “This study suggests that interventions like this one have the potential to increase access to healthy food to children after school.”
Health experts agree that one important step to improving the nation’s health is to get children eating healthier food at school.
The influential Institute of Medicine recommends requiring at least 60 minutes per day of physical education and activity in schools, industry-wide guidelines on which foods and beverages can be marketed to children and how they can be marketed, and expansion of workplace wellness programs.