The UC Food Observer is pleased to welcome guest blogger Teresa O’Connor to this space. Teresa is an author, speaker and consultant. Trained as a Master Gardener in California and Idaho, her writing has been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, Gardening How-To, 805 Living and Coastal Living, among others. She co-authored Grocery Gardening: Planting, Preparing and Preserving Fresh Foods. Many know Teresa as “Seasonal Wisdom,” from social media and her blog: SeasonalWisdom.com. You may remember her recent guest post on edible gardening trends.
If we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it a million times – “Eat your vegetables every day for good health.” Yet despite these reminders, 87 percent of adults in 2013 failed to eat the recommended daily vegetable intake established by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research published this summer.
So, why aren’t we eating more vegetables? News headlines in recent weeks have revealed some answers, and a few may surprise you.
Vegetables Aren’t Available
Last month, Tracie McMillan (@TMMcMillan) made a strong case that The U.S. Doesn’t Have Enough of the Vegetables We’re Supposed to Eat for NPR ‘s The Salt. The senior fellow at Brandies University and author of The American Way of Eating presented several well-researched reasons why there is a shortage of fresh vegetables available in the United States.
“While the USDA’s own dietary guidelines recommend that adults consume 2.5 to 3 cups of vegetables a day, the agency’s researchers found that only 1.7 cups per person are available,” McMillan writes.
USDA research released last month showed that tomatoes and potatoes comprised nearly 50 percent of vegetables and legumes available in 2013, with lettuce in third place. Unfortunately, much of that intake included less-nutritious foods such as pizza, ketchup and french fries.
Just_Jeannette/Flickr Creative Commons
That’s despite the fact that the USDA’s own dietary guidelines encourage Americans to eat a wide variety of vegetables, such as dark leafy kale, orange winter squash, black beans or yellow peppers.
For more on the importance of eating fresh foods for good health, don’t miss this UC Food Observer interview with Dr. Preston Maring, whose creative ideas established farmers’ markets at more than 50 Kaiser Permanente health facilities in seven states.
Less Farming Diversity
You can’t eat what isn’t available.
ElliotPhotos/Flickr Creative Commons
The USDA research was conducted with Kansas State University and North Dakota State University. The team compared agricultural census data collected every five years between 1978 and 2012. Read the entire Civil Eats article.
The silver lining is that not every area of the nation has followed this trend and one region is actually increasing its crop diversity.
But overall this decline in farming diversity may be negatively affecting the nation’s vegetable supply.
A 2010 study in American Journal of Preventive Medicine showed that, “the U.S. vegetable supply would need to increase by 70 percent … in order for Americans to meet recommended daily allowances at the time,” writes McMillan in the NPR article.
Less Support for Healthy Food
Some researchers believe there is a serious disconnect between agriculture and health policy.
Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University and author, was quoted in the NPR article as saying, “The USDA does not support ‘specialty crops’ [like vegetables] to any appreciable extent and the Department of Commerce’ figures show that the relative price of fruits and vegetables has gone up much faster than that of fast food or sodas.”
The result is that fast food and soda are often less expensive than balanced meals with fresh produce.
Speaking of soda, Nestle just released her newest book, Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (And Winning) … Here is a tweet that was widely circulated last week.
Providing Food Access
Meanwhile, innovative grassroots programs continue to sprout up around the United States to provide fresh foods to different communities. Just a few examples:
In Los Angeles: Gwyneth Paltrow has thrown her support behind LA Kitchen, according to an article this week in Variety. LA Kitchen is a non-profit in Northeast Los Angeles that trains chefs from disadvantaged backgrounds to serve delicious, healthy meals with fresh foods, which would have normally been wasted.
Look for UC Food Observer’s interview with LA Kitchen – coming soon!
In North Carolina: The Veggie Van Program sells affordable, fresh, local produce in low-income and underserved communities. The program is run by the nonprofit organization Community Nutrition Partnership, and was started by Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, who now works as a food systems and health analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
In Chicago: The Peterson Garden Project is teaching thousands of Chicago residents of all income levels and ages how to grow their own fresh produce around the city – often for the first time. The award-winning non-profit added a cooking class this year to teach gardeners how to prepare nutritional meals quickly and inexpensively. Peterson Garden Project was inspired by Chicago’s World War II Victory Gardens – also grown at a time when food shortages were a national health concern.
Creating Demand Early
These types of innovative grassroots programs will get more of us eating the vegetables we’re supposed to eat. But at the end of the day, consumers should speak up if they want to see a larger, more accessible supply of healthy and affordable fresh produce across the nation.
As Haynes-Maslow explained in the NPR article, “If more Americans got used to eating more fruits and vegetables they might be demanding more of it,” she said. “But it’s really hard to demand something you’ve not grown up with.”
One way to address that issue is to connect children closer with their food sources at an early age, so they grow up with more fruits and vegetables grown locally.
The National Farm to School network has activities planned across the nation, and the USDA offers this toolkit with helpful advice for those who want to start a Farm to School program at their school.
To learn more about the benefits of youth exposed to healthy foods at school, don’t miss UC Food Observers’ interview with two nutrition researchers and educators from University of California Cooperative Extension Service.
“Nutrition education and the breakfast, lunch or dinner programs in public schools fit into the systemic wave of change to support making healthy foods an easier choice,” says Dorina Espinoza, a University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) advisor who researches food security issues.
Meanwhile, farm to school programs are popular with the American people, according to last week’s CNBC commentary by Curt Ellis, CEO and co-founder of FoodCorps. Ellis cites a recent W.K. Kellogg Foundation survey that shows 88 percent of surveyed Americans supported increased funding for these programs.