Americans STILL Aren’t Eating Their Veggies

Last month, The New York Times reported that despite 20 years of “public health initiatives, stricter government dietary guidelines, record growth of farmers’ markets and the ease of products like salad in a bag, Americans still aren’t eating enough vegetables.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a comprehensive nationwide behavioral study of fruit and vegetable consumption. Only 26 percent of the nation’s adults eat vegetables three or more times a day, it concluded. (And no, that does not include French fries.)

These results fell far short of health objectives set by the federal government a decade ago. The amount of vegetables Americans eat is less than half of what public health officials had hoped. Worse, it has barely budged since 2000.

The government recommends four and a half cups of fruits and vegetables (which equals nine servings) for people who eat 2,000 calories a day.

People know that vegetables are good for them and can improve health, but they are also seen as a lot of work and have a much quicker “expiration date” than processed foods. Even if you buy veggies with the best of intentions, if you don’t consume them fast enough, they are doomed to rot in your refrigerator. I think this is something we’ve all been guilty of at one time or another. A survey of 1,000 Americans conducted by White Wave Foods indicates that almost half of us leave our fruit in the refrigerator until it rots. I can only assume that even more vegetables suffer a similar fate.

At Mother Nature Network, Katherine Butler asks, “what is the price of not eating vegetables?”

Mostly, it means that Americans are lacking in vital nutrients. Antioxidants and fiber fill vegetables, as well as key nutrients such as potassium, beta-carotene, iron, folate, magnesium, calcium and vitamins A, C, E and K. Fiber can reduce cholesterol; potassium, found in foods like spinach, helps blood pressure. Vitamin C helps gums and teeth, while vitamin E fights against premature aging.

Apparently, orange veggies are something we should be focusing on too. According to The Ohio State University Extension blog:

Orange vegetables, like pumpkin, squash, carrots, and sweet potatoes contain nutrients and phytonutrients found in no other group of vegetables. That’s why experts recommend we eat at least 2 cups a week of orange vegetables. How many do you eat? If you’re not eating enough, now is the perfect time of year to start!  All types of winter squash — acorn, butternut, hubbard, etc. are in season and cheap.  Pumpkins and canned pumpkins are stocking the shelves. Carrots and sweet potatoes are found commonly throughout the year.

I’m not sure there’s a solution for getting adult Americans to consume more vegetables. They know they are healthy, but they still don’t eat them. Even with convenient options like prepackaged servings of broccoli and bagged salads available, they aren’t biting (pun intended). Until Americans make eating vegetables a priority, it’s not going to happen. After all, you can’t force feed them. Maybe we could hide vegetables in french fries? Hmm. Probably not. Although that is a technique some people use to get children to eat their veggies (remember Jessica Seinfeld’s book Deceptively Delicious?), though not everyone agrees with it.

Organic Authority points out the important of fruits and vegetables for children. “A diet high in fruits and vegetables is important for optimal child growth, maintaining a healthy weight, and prevention of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and some cancers—all of which currently contribute to healthcare costs in the United States,” says William H. Dietz, MD, PhD, director of the CDC’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity.

Lisa Johnson mentions that some high schools have added baby carrot vending machines next to the typical junk food machines and wonders if the packaging (designed to look similar to a potato chip bag) will entice kids to buy them. Lisa says, “I have to say I think it’s a good idea. It might seem a little condescending to some but we are visual creatures and we react positively to colorful items that grab our attention while glossing over the ho-hum stuff. Shouldn’t we just capitalize on human nature to achieve a greater good?”

The Huffington Post reports “The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced what it called a major new initiative, giving $2 million to food behavior scientists to find ways to use psychology to improve kids’ use of the federal school lunch program and fight childhood obesity.” Some schools are employing psychology tricks in hopes of getting teens to make healthier lunch choices in the cafeteria. Cornell researches have dubbed these little tricks a success: “Keep ice cream in freezers without glass display tops so the treats are out of sight. Move salad bars next to the checkout registers, where students linger to pay, giving them more time to ponder a salad. And start a quick line for make-your-own subs and wraps, as Corning East High School in upstate New York did.”

Perhaps the veggie avoidance can be traced back to infancy. I wrote in 2007 about a study that showed breast-fed babies are more likely to like fruits and vegetables (if their mother ate them while breastfeeding) than their formula-fed counterparts.

Senior author of the study Julie A. Mennella, PhD said, “The best predictor of how much fruits and vegetables children eat is whether they like the tastes of these foods. If we can get babies to learn to like these tastes, we can get them off to an early start of healthy eating. … It’s a beautiful system. Flavors from the mother’s diet are transmitted through amniotic fluid and mother’s milk. So, a baby learns to like a food’s taste when the mother eats that food on a regular basis.”

However, regardless of whether your baby is breast-fed or formula fed, the article points out the importance of offering your baby “plenty of opportunities to taste fruits and vegetables as s/he makes the transition to solid foods by giving repeated feeding exposures to these healthy foods.”

What’s the answer to get Americans to eat their veggies? I vote for focusing on the children. Perhaps if Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution continues, not only will children start eating healthier, but their new habits may rub off on their parents too.

Photo via Masahiro Ihara on Flickr

Cross-posted on BlogHer.

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Can Your Child Identify a Tomato? Teaching Kids About Food

I recently watched a preview from Jamie Oliver’s new show Food Revolution where first grade children were unable to identify fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes, cauliflower, eggplant, etc. While I didn’t find it shocking, I thought it was quite sad. It drives the point home that as a society we are, as Oliver points out in his TED talk (which is absolutely worth 20 minutes of your time), very disconnected from our food and where it comes from. Sure, kids eat french fries and ketchup, but do they know they come from potatoes and tomatoes? He also points out that the current generation of children may be the first in two centuries to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. Of course after that I had to quiz my five-year-old Ava (to make sure I wasn’t being overly critical) and she knew what everything was except the beet (which we don’t eat because I think they taste like dirt).


Photo credit: Jacki-dee

Ava’s kindergarten class is currently doing a section about food. My daughter already knows a fair bit about what she eats since she’s been gardening with me since before she could walk. We also have friends who have chickens and we frequently visit the farmers’ market. I don’t know what specifically her class is being taught about food, but I imagine it’s pretty light and upbeat (i.e. no information about factory farming, genetically modified organisms, etc.). That’s OK with me though. I feel like you can only give five-year-olds so much information. They have plenty of time to learn more about the current farming practices in the United States when they get older. I have been impressed that they made butter in school by shaking a jar full of cream and will be making applesauce as well, and are even hatching baby chickens in an incubator in the classroom. They also took a field trip to a supermarket. A trip to a community garden would have been nicer, but there’s not much to see at a garden in Colorado in early March. Regardless, I’m glad that her school is teaching young children about food and hope that others around the country are as well.

Earlier this week I finally sat down to watch Food, Inc. for the very first time. My kids, ages three and five, who were not yet in bed sat down too, ready to watch along side me. I had a conversation with myself in my head for a minute. Should I let them watch it? I haven’t yet seen it so I have no idea what to expect. But it’s about food and where food comes from, and that’s educational, right? I decided to turn it on and keep the remote in my hand in case anything looked like it might get too gory or inappropriate for them.

Ava watched it quite intently and asked me several questions. Julian, my 3-year-old, watched bits and pieces while he wasn’t busy playing. Actually, one of the things he started playing (after watching a scene where a factory chicken farmer collects dead chickens was “throw the dead chickens (stuffed animals) into a bucket.” It was rather fascinating to see him reenact that scene.

At one point, I stopped the movie to gauge Ava’s reaction and ask her how watching it made her feel. She replied, “Sad and happy. Sad because people have to eat the chickens. Happy because I’m learning.” That reinforced my decision to let her watch it. I was very happy to hear that learning made her happy.

We ended up watching only half of the movie together before it was time for the kids to go to bed and they missed some of the more gruesome scenes like the lame cows, pig slaughterhouse and the scene of the traditional farmer and his workers killing and processing chickens (which really wasn’t that bad). After seeing it all now though, I think they would have been OK with watching it.

Food, Inc. is rated PG “for some thematic material and disturbing images” and that seems very fair. I wouldn’t let children watch it on their own, but I think if they watch with a parent it’s a great learning opportunity for all parties involved.

This spring we will start getting chickens (to eat) from a local farmer and I think a field trip of sorts to visit the farm and the chickens is in order. We’re also hoping to get chickens or maybe ducks of our own for eggs once we move and have more land. The more I can expose my children to where their food comes from, the better. We’re not perfect. We go out to eat and even eat *gasp* fast food and junk food from time to time, but my kids know what a tomato is, they see me cooking and gardening and help me with those things. All of that, I believe, will help establish healthy patterns that will last a lifetime and will hopefully keep them from becoming a statistic.

Related posts:

Soon-to-be cross-posted on BlogHer

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Urban fruit gleaning – harvesting homegrown produce for free

I’ve always been a fan of free stuff, especially when that “stuff” equals healthy food for my family. Although we aren’t struggling to put food on the table, I can still appreciate using food that would otherwise go to waste. It wasn’t until recently that I learned there is a phrase for collecting and using other people’s fruits and vegetables – it’s called urban fruit (or vegetable) gleaning.

So far this year I’ve gleaned 17 lbs. of zucchini and yellow squash, a large bowl of strawberries, a couple pounds of plums and several pounds of apples. Last year I gleaned a couple bowls of raspberries, cucumbers and enough concord grapes to make 20 jars of jelly.

Fruit and vegetable gleaning is a practice that has been going on for ages (traditionally, it is “the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields after they have been commercially harvested or on fields where it is not economically profitable to harvest”), but it’s slowly moving into the spotlight recently as websites devoted to finding locations for giving or harvesting produce pop up across the Internet. Neighborhood Fruit, Veggie Trader and Fallen Fruit are three such sites.

  • Neighborhood Fruit allows users to both share and find fruit, vegetables and herbs, including the ability to register fruit trees on public ground or on your own property
  • Veggie Trader is “Your place to trade, buy or sell local homegrown produce”
  • Fallen Fruit – “‘Public Fruit’ is the concept behind Fallen Fruit, an activist art project which started as a mapping of all the public fruit in our neighborhood.”

You can also list your excess produce on sites like Freecycle (where I scored 17 lbs. of squash this year) or Craigslist.

Why glean fruit?
Tressa Eaton from Serious Eats says, “Urban fruit-harvesting engages a community, makes community members aware of their own local (and often organic) food resources, provides an opportunity for neighbors to meet over the boughs of fruit trees, and brings up important questions about public space. And in this economy the price is right.”

There are some “rules” or rather proper etiquette involved in urban fruit gleaning.

  • Ask for permission first – While technically any fruit that is hanging over or fallen onto public property is legal to take (according to a report done on KCRW’s Good Food), it is best to ask the owner first. Last year my brother-in-law (with eight kids to feed) had no qualms about knocking on people’s doors asking them if they were going to use all of their apples, pears, or whatever and if not, did they mind if he picked some. Most people are happy to see the fruit go to good use. Or as Granola Mama says, “If you are like me and have a fruit tree in your backyard, reaping the harvest can be both exciting, and well… a major pain in the ass.” After trying to harvest as many of her plums as she could, she called the “gleaners” to pick the rest and take to a food bank, which I will talk about more below.
  • Don’t take more than you can use
  • Be friendly and appreciative
  • Optional: take some of whatever of your finished product is (jar of jam, apple sauce, muffins, etc.) back to the person who gave you their produce. It’s a nice way to say thank you.
  • It’s also suggested that you arrive on foot, bring a friend, share your food, and say hi to strangers

Other ways to give or receive produce:
Using sites like Neighborhood Fruit or Freecycle aren’t the only way to find homegrown produce in your area. At the office where my husband works, someone recently brought in some of their excess zucchini and sent out an office-wide email to let people know where it was in case they wanted it. Others thought it was a great idea and now people are regularly bringing in their extra fruits or vegetables. Just this past weekend we stopped by the office and found several pounds of apples and plums there for the taking.

Ask friends or relatives if they have any produce to share and vice versa, let them know if you have any.

I also recommend walking or riding your bike around your neighborhood and paying attention to the trees in the yards. On a bike ride yesterday I discovered 10 apple trees (several of them just loaded with fruit) within a few blocks of my house, and a couple pear trees in my nearby park. I’d been down these streets many times before, but without really looking for the trees, I never noticed them. I hope to stop by one or two of the houses to ask about gleaning some of their fruit. I’d love to pick some for my family and then donate a few bags to the food bank which brings me to my next point.

Donating to local food banks:
Another excellent option for getting rid of your unwanted produce is to take it to your local food bank. The Society of St. Andrew “is a grassroots hunger relief ministry that relies on volunteers to glean nutritious produce from farmers’ fields and orchards after harvest and deliver it to people in need across the United States.”

A post and video on Cooking Up A Story tells of an organization that harvests produce to help out the local community.

Portland Fruit Tree Project provides a valuable service that helps communities benefit directly from local resources. Fresh fruit that grows on neighborhood trees is collected by volunteers, and dropped off at local Food Banks for distribution to those in need. The great thing about this program is that in large part, the fruit would not be harvested or eaten by anyone—if not for fruit gleaning.

Whether you glean for yourself and your family or to give to others, remember the etiquette above, feel good about all of the food you are keeping from rotting on the ground, and have fun!

Related posts:
From Sarah Gilbert at Wallet Pop: Picking the parking strips: the gleaning fruit movement
From Kim Severson at NY Times: Neighbor, Can You Spare a Plum?
From Kyeann Sayer at TreeHugger: Fallen Fruit: Free Produce on Los Angeles Streets
From Katy at Good is in the Air: Three Ways You Can Donate Food by Gleaning
From Julia at Homesteading – Mindful Living in Minnesota: Apple Picking!

Cross-posted on BlogHer

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