Bonnie Modugno, MS, RD - Fruit and Vegetable Consumption Far Below Targets
A recent report in the Sept 10 Morbidity and Mortality Report from the CDC details how most Americans eat far fewer fruits and vegetables than recommended. Only 25% of Americans consume 3 servings of vegetables a day; only 1/3 of Americans eat 2 or more servings of fruit.
My son went to school with three servings of fruits and vegetables just for lunch. Why are so many people not eating their share? The authors suggest it is about access, availability and affordability. I would add two more: taste and quality.
ACCESS AND AVAILABILITY
This summer we traveled in a remote part of the Pacific Northwest Olympic Peninsula. I haven’t been so confronted by lack of food choice in a long time. At one point we were 40 miles away from a full service grocery store in one direction and 55 miles away in the other. Maybe this is what the authors meant when then said there was a problem with access.
The small stores that passed for post office, hardware store, tackle and bait shop, also sold groceries: Dozens of shelves of cookies, crackers, candy, pastries, fried snack foods and soda. The fruit and vegetable bin was about 3 feet wide. In the prime of the growing season I could buy bananas, apples and oranges. And one time I was able to buy a melon. Maybe this is what the authors were talking about when they considered availability a problem.
I didn’t calculate a cost comparison on vacation, but a recent consulting job had me pricing out the cost of lunch. I was looking for the most expensive food–and found a loaf of bread at $4.59. Each slice of even the most expensive bread cost about $0.16 cents. The cheap stuff was less than half.
A slice of bread is about 80-100 calories. The apples, oranges and bananas I was pricing yield from 60-100 calories. How much did they cost? The banana priced at $0.50 cents a piece; the apple and orange were $0.62 cents each. Maybe this is the problem with affordability.
The US Farm Bill passed by our congressional leaders allows soy, corn and wheat to be grown with huge subsidies, while fruits and vegetable farmers get no such support. The impact on costs of food is measurable both at the check out stand and in our health.
The Center for Disease Control needs to speak clearly and specifically to the other branches of government. You can’t blame the public for purchasing foods that are remarkably cheaper for similar energy in these tough economic times. Many people struggle to keep food on the table and a roof overhead.
FABULOUS PRODUCE IS OFTEN FABULOUSLY EXPENSIVE
Yes, my son eats plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, but most people would shudder at my budget for produce every week. Granted, I go for flavor as well. That flavor I purchase comes from just picked produce at my local farmer’s markets. And it is a big reason my family happily eats so many fruits and vegetables. They taste fabulous.
The freshness and vibrant flavors are a direct result of picking fruit ripe in the orchards and vegetables ripe off the stems. It has to do with having farmers grow produce with on eye on the environment, transport and flavor–not just how well this product can tolerate shipping over hundreds if not thousands of miles.
Big agriculture has cultivated an incredibly abundant food supply–even fruits and vegetables. But the quality isn’t there. I can’t tell you how many times clients have complained that fruit and vegetables just don’t taste the same. True, it may be the patient’s medications or illness; it could be their age, but I think mostly it is poor quality from crop management that values transportability over texture and flavor.
OVERWHELMING OUR TASTE BUDS
Another factor is the incredible harm to our taste buds from exposure to the plethora of hyper-flavored, ultra refined, and processed “foods” that overwhelm the supermarket. How does a week-old tough skinned, mealy-meated peach compare with all those snacks blazoned with “New and Improved Flavor”. It doesn’t. And that may be a big reason why most people are not eating enough fruits and vegetables.
And there is the issue with price. I buy $60-80 dollars of produce on my primary trip to the Farmer’s Market during the week. That doesn’t last the week. I am lucky to choose from five different markets each week within a short bike ride or walk from my home or office. But the produce is pricey.
YOU PAY FOR QUALITY
Peaches and nectarine are usually $3.25 and more a pound; Heirloom tomatoes can be $4.50 a pound; zucchini, beets, carrots and other root vegetables often come in at $2 a pound, but my favorite Romano green beans are $3 a pound and Strawberries are $10 per three pack. A small bunch or arugula lettuce rings up at $4 per 1/4 pounds.
I don’t mind paying these prices to the local farmers. I have tried to grow a few crops and decided I save money purchasing fruits and vegetables from people who know what they are doing. I am grateful for their know-how, their hard labor and their dedication to bringing me the fruit of their labors. It’s delicious and appreciated.
But I am also aware that most people don’t have the resources or dedication to shopping for high quality produce that I do. It takes a lot of time in addition to the money. I don’t think we are going to meet any kind of goal for health eating at this rate. We need a different kind of infrastructure to support the effort.
Just telling people that they should be eating two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables a day doesn’t cut it. Knowledge is not behavior. But behavior is a lot easier when the target is tasty, fresh and delicious.
ABUNDANT, CHEAP, AND MEDIOCRE FOOD IS PART OF THE PROBLEM
Growing a lot of mediocre and cheap food is part of the problem. And the food that it is made from the cheapest subsidized crops is ironically the stuff that is most associated with obesity, diabetes, and other lifestyle diseases.
Maybe it’s time to change USDA policy and support local farmers, farmers who predominantly grow fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes at least in the same way USDA policy supports big agribusiness that predominantly grows wheat, soy and corn. Fresh fruits, vegetables and beans are the kinds of carbohydrates that keep people healthy; products made from refined wheat, corn and soybean oil are mostly the kinds of food that are causing the problem.
Small and local farms makes it much easier to address the challenges of access and availability. The issues with affordability may need more economic finesse. But wouldn’t it be a cool thing if we had so many local farms that people could sign up to help harvest crops so that they could afford what was grown.
And flavor. When peaches are sweet and juicy; apples are crisp and sweet/tart; beets burst with flavor, and even my husband likes the zucchini, I know that locally grown, picked-ripe produce can easily trump the “food like” products that litter our supermarkets.
Right now USDA food policy is trumping any call by the CDC to eat more fruits and vegetables. Until the many conflicting government agency agendas are in alignment, I wouldn’t be wagging any fingers at the public. Right now there is little incentive for people to change behavior at all.