(March 10, 9:50 a.m.) A recently published nutritional study on U.S. childrens’ eating habits illuminates the need for increased education on the importance of eating fruits and vegetables at home and school.

And, according to the study, the earlier in age that message can be delivered, the better.

Researchers at Ohio State University analyzed data from the government’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 1999-2002 on 6,500 children.

“We felt it was very important to identify any groups not meeting the recommended level of fruits and vegetables. said Hugo Melgar-Quinonez, assistant professor of human nutrition at Ohio State, Columbus.

While 50% of children ages 2-5 were not meeting daily recommendations of fruit intake, that number jumped to 74% for kids 6-11 and to 81% in those 12-18. The percentages for not meeting recommended daily vegetable requirements were even more startling — 78% for kids 2-5, 84% for 6-11 and 90% 12-18.

“Basically, we need to start early” with the education process when it pertains to healthy eating,” Melgar-Quinonez said. “On the positive side, younger kids do better than older kids. That’s a starting point. Those kids are probably closer to their parents.”

French fries are the most common type of vegetable children eat, accounting for about one-fourth of their intake. Add in potato chips, Melgar-Quinonez said, and it is closer to 35%. Fruit juice makes up about 40% of kids’ fruit consumption. If those two items are discounted, children in the U.S. are eating far fewer fruits and vegetables than the surface data shows.

The Produce for Better Health Foundation puts out an annual nutrition education catalog that contains fun activities for kids, such as the “Fruits and Veggies Beach Ball Game” and “Jamie Junkfood’s Fresh Adventure,” designed to get kids off junk food. The organization’s adopt-a-school program lets businesses, civic organizations and individuals purchase educational materials for classrooms, and its foodchamps.org Web site gives kids 2-8 fun activities that encourage them to eat fruits and vegetables.

The $787 million stimulus package passed by Congress and signed into law Feb. 17 by President Obama provides up to $100 million for cafeteria equipment assistance to schools which includes purchasing salad bars to serve fruits and vegetables.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Melgar-Quinonez said. “We need to educate teachers, children and their parents, because it’s not always an easy decision to make.”