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EU slows down on including plant-based drink in school scheme

Support for including plant-based alternatives to milk in the programme that distributes fresh produce to children in European schools is growing but both the EU executive and lawmakers are still cautious about it.

Launched in 2017, the EU School Scheme aims to support the distribution of selected agricultural products to schoolchildren while promoting healthy diets in public canteens. The initiative is two-fold, aiming to promote fruits and vegetables, but also milk.

As part of the EU’s flagship Farm to Fork strategy, the EU executive tabled a revision of the scheme by the end of next year and conducted already an evaluation support study whose results were published in November.

“In general, over time, there is an increase of the importance of the F&V [fruit and vegetables] part of the EU school scheme compared to the milk part of the scheme,” reads the Commission evaluation.

The assessment highlighted that “the decrease in the number of children involved in the milk part of the scheme is stronger than the increase in the number of children involved in the F&V part,” showing, in particular, a decreasing interest in France, Italy, and Poland toward the milk part of the scheme.

As plain milk is the only option offered in the current scheme, there are growing calls to include plant-based alternatives to milk in the scheme, with a petition led by 27 organisations – including ProVeg International and campaigners of Compassion in World Farming EU.

A recent Eurobarometer also showed that 24% of EU citizens want to see alternatives to plain milk based on oats, almonds, or soya included in the school scheme.

However, the Commission curbed the expectations on this possibility.

“Our objective is to have more balanced, nutritious diets. And animal proteins are part of a balanced diet,” Wolfgang Burtscher, director-general of the Commission’s agriculture service DG AGRI, told EURACTIV, commenting on the outcome of the evaluation.

The support for plant-based products grows to seven out of 10 respondents in the public consultation phase launched by the Commission earlier this year.

“We are really delighted by the outcome of the consultation which made overwhelmingly clear that plant-based drinks have a place in the EU School Scheme,” said Lucia Hortelano, EU policy manager at ProVeg,

But for Brigitte Misonne, another Commission official and head of the animal unit at DG AGRI, the public consultation is “less representative”, one of the reasons being that the Commission “has identified organised campaigns” influencing the replies.

Member states have the last word

Earlier this week, on 28 November, lawmakers in the European Parliament’s agriculture committee (AGRI) discussed the outcomes of the evaluation study touching upon the entry of plant-based drinks.

Parliament’s rapporteur on the file, the Belgian socialist Marc Tarabella, stressed that “opening the door” to processed products such as plant-based alternatives to milk would not meet the appropriate criteria of the programme.

“I’m rather reluctant about opening up to plant-based drinks. Fruit and vegetables are already plant-based and their consumption has to be promoted for public health reasons,” Tarabella said.

On the other hand, Dutch leftist Anja Hazekamp called on the rapporteur to include “healthy” plant-based alternative products.

“I’d like to ask you to extend the programme to include durable calcium-rich plant products. Several European citizens believe that there should be at least plant alternative products,” she said.

A key aspect of the forthcoming review of the school scheme pencilled by the end of next year is how much flexibility will be given to countries to implement the programme.

This discussion is particularly needed to balance the lack of harmonisation within the project, as well as diverse cultural backgrounds and dietary habits.

According to DG Agri director-general Brutscher, the more manoeuvring room you leave to member states, the broader the range of products subject to the school scheme might be.

The results of the Eurobarometer also showed clear differences between member states in their preferences for eligible products.

Plant-based drinks, for example, would be accepted by almost half of the citizens in Portugal, while only 13% of people in Poland would like to include them.

DG AGRI’s Misonne said that in case plant-based drinks ultimately get into the scope of eligible products, it would be for member states to decide what is offered to children.

[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/Zoran Radosavljevic]

Source: Eura Ctiv

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