Americans still don’t eat well at all. After a decade of cajoling Americans to eat their apples and carrots, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) admitted that their efforts haven’t made a dent in U.S. eating habits.
The CDC recently reported that Americans aren’t eating the recommended two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables a day — in fact, since 2000 the amount of vegetables we eat has stayed level and amount of fruit we eat has gone down. Though the initiative this study was measuring, Healthy People 2010, set goals that weren’t hard to meet, results fell well below their modest targets.
Efforts that failed
Healthy People 2010 was aiming to see 75% of Americans over two years old eating two or more servings of fruit a day, and 50% of Americans over two eating three or more servings of vegetables a day. In their recent analysis of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, the CDC found that only about a third of adults were eating their recommended servings of fruit, and just over a quarter of adults were eating their recommended servings of vegetables.
Given the disheartening results of the survey, many of the news stories on the CDC’s report seem purely frustrated. “Do we have to remind you of the health benefits of better eating, including more fruit and vegetables?” NPR asks in apparent exasperation. It does seem like “5 a day” posters are hanging in every cafeteria, and by now everyone knows carrots are a healthier choice than Pringles and oranges are healthier than popsicles. Obviously, if we want to work toward the CDC’s modest goals for fruit and vegetable consumption, we need different strategies than reminding.
Why don’t we listen?
There are many reasons Americans don’t eat produce, including aggressive marketing of unhealthy, processed foods and the fact that human beings may be evolutionarily hard-wired to crave fats, sugars, and other unhealthy but oh-so-delicious treats. However, there are a few more reasons that I think reflect broad societal issues we can attack head-on.
*Fruits and vegetables are expensive. Sure, a bag of potatoes is cheaper and goes farther than a bag of potato chips, but the single red pepper I bought at my relatively cheap neighborhood grocery store yesterday was $3.99. Looking beyond anecdote, Boston Medical Center and Drexel University have worked together to track food prices in low-income neighborhoods in Boston and Philadelphia. Their revealing 2008 report “The Real Cost of a Healthy Diet”(pdf) shows how unobtainable healthy foods like fruits and vegetables are for low-income families shopping at stores of any size.
*It’s hard to find produce in “food deserts.” From my Somerville apartment, I’m within a two-minute walk of a grocery store full of produce that’s not top of the line but is plentiful and varied — I can get fresh cilantro, five different kinds of onions, local organic apples, plantains, and bushels of other produce. During the summer, there are three or four farmers’ markets within a twenty-minute walk. But just a few miles away in the heart of Boston, there are blocks and blocks and blocks without grocery stores, where bodegas and corner stores hold waxy oranges, wilted iceberg lettuce and overripe bananas. Food deserts can be found everywhere, in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, Birmingham, and Detroit, and in rural areas of states like Mississippi, Ohio, and Minnesota. In all too many American neighborhoods, appealing produce — let alone local, organic, sustainably grown produce — is physically and economically out of reach.
*Many fruits and vegetables — especially vegetables — need to be cooked. Grabbing a pear or banana for instant eating is easy, but some of the healthiest produce around takes time, energy, and skill to make into a meal. Sweet potatoes, kale, and beets can be delectable — but making them into appealing dishes isn’t an intuitive process, it has to be learned and practiced.
Instead of throwing up our hands at the results of this study, or concluding that Americans are just determined to hate spinach no matter how much they’re told about Vitamin A, we need to come up with innovative ways to make fruits and vegetables accessible and exciting. Fortunately, it seems that this lesson is starting to sink in at the CDC.
The editorial section of their report says that while they’re disappointed in their results, they’ll now be working on improving “access, availability, and affordability of fruits and vegetables.” In the past year, the CDC has begun supporting community-based projects like urban gardens, farmers’ markets, and farm-to-school programs. With projects like these, there’s the potential to transform communities as well as individuals’ eating habits. (In the next few days I’ll be writing about initiatives that increase real food access in more detail.)
The results of the last decade were far, far less than stellar. Still, if we address both the personal and environmental reasons Americans aren’t eating produce there’s definitely reason to hope grapes, eggplants, and green beans will gain new places of honor in American kitchens and lunchboxes.
Photo from mckaysavage's flickr, under Creative Common license.