VICTORIA - British Columbia's health minister chomps on a crunchy cucumber as he hands out fresh peppers and tomatoes to Grade 5 students who eagerly accept the healthy snacks.
Terry Lake was at Oaklands Elementary School on Monday to mark a decade of the province's fruit and vegetables program, which is available to 1,460 schools, or 90 per cent of B.C. schools.
Lake said junk food was once the most popular lunch kit snack, but fruit and vegetables are taking root in classrooms ahead of chips and chocolates.
"We see more and more that families, particularly kids, are more accepting of fruit and vegetables, whereas in the old days they might have said, 'We want Ding Dongs and Wagon Wheels.'"
In 2005, when the provincial government declared healthy living and physical fitness among its top goals, B.C.'s health minister was chided as the minister responsible for fruit and vegetables.
"I'd love to be known as the minister of fruit and vegetables because we know that healthy eating is a key to healthy living," Lake said. "When you look at childhood obesity rates across North America that is a tremendous concern and a lot of that is because of unhealthy snacking that kids do."
He said teaching children that tomatoes, cucumbers and apples are healthy choices goes a long way towards promoting lifelong eating habits.
Government numbers reveal that 1,463 B.C. public and First Nations schools participate in the program.
This year, 651 B.C. growers provided fruit and vegetables to more than 489,000 students. Milk was provided to about 83,000 students in kindergarten to Grade 2 last year.
Fruit and vegetables are delivered to schools 13 times a year.
Lake said he could not provide direct data that link healthy school food to improved health outcomes among students, but the program is a crucial part of the government's strategy to prevent future problems associated with unhealthy diets and lifestyles.
"We're just starting to see data out of the United States that show the childhood obesity rate is starting to go down," he said.
Health Ministry officials said the program has undergone five reviews since it began with 10 schools, adding it's been found to be an important factor in helping families accept fruit and vegetables as necessary and popular choices.
British Columbians enjoy the longest lifespans in Canada, at nearly 83 years, and have the best overall cancer survival rates.
Opposition New Democrat education critic Rob Fleming said the fruit and vegetables program does little to address the growing poverty problem across a province where too many children come to school without eating breakfast or without a lunch. He said school meal programs need to be expanded.
Opposition New Democrat agriculture critic Lana Popham introduced a private member's bill Monday calling on the government to provide more support for local food growers.