Told to eat its vegetables, America orders fries

Told to eat its vegetables, America orders fries
New York:  It's been a busy week for vegetables.

The baby-carrot industry tried to reposition its product as junk food, starting a $25 million advertising campaign whose defining characteristics include heavy metal music, a phone app and a young man in a grocery cart dodging baby-carrot bullets fired by a woman in tight jeans.

On the East Side of Manhattan, crates of heirloom vegetables with names like Lady Godiva squash were auctioned for $1,000 each at Sotheby's, where the wealthy are more accustomed to bidding on Warhols and Picassos than turnips and tomatoes.

Both efforts, high and low, are aimed at the same thing: getting America to eat its vegetables.

Good luck. Despite two decades 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.

This month, 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.

"It is disappointing," said Dr. Jennifer Foltz, a pediatrician who helped compile the report. She, like other public health officials dedicated to improving the American diet, concedes that perhaps simply telling people to eat more vegetables isn't working.

"There is nothing you can say that will get people to eat more veggies," said Harry Balzer, the chief industry analyst for the NPD Group, a market research company.

This week, the company released the 25th edition of its annual report, "Eating Patterns in America." The news there wasn't good, either. For example, only 23 percent of meals include a vegetable, Mr. Balzer said. (Again, fries don't count, but lettuce on a hamburger does.) The number of dinners prepared at home that included a salad was 17 percent; in 1994, it was 22 percent.

At restaurants, salads ordered as a main course at either lunch or dinner dropped by half since 1989, to a mere 5 percent, he said.

The nation has long had a complicated relationship with vegetables. People know that vegetables can improve health. But they're a lot of work. In refrigerators all over the country, produce often dies a slow, limp death because life becomes too busy.

"The moment you have something fresh you have to schedule your life around using it," Mr. Balzer said.

In the wrong hands, vegetables can taste terrible. And compared with a lot of food at the supermarket, they're a relatively expensive way to fill a belly.

"Before we want health, we want taste, we want convenience and we want low cost," Mr. Balzer said.

Melissa MacBride, a busy Manhattan resident who works for a pharmaceuticals company, would eat more vegetables if they weren't, in her words, "a pain."

"An apple you can just grab," she said. "But what am I going to do, put a piece of kale in my purse?"

No one really wants to admit that they don't eat vegetables. A nurse who works at the Hospital for Special Surgery on the Upper East Side openly acknowledges that vegetables make her gag. Still, she begged to not be publicly identified because she is in the health care field and knows that she should set a better example.

David Bernstein, who lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is sheepish about the lack of vegetables in his diet. He waits tables at the hip M. Wells restaurant in Long Island City, Queens, and knows his way around the Union Square Greenmarket. But his diet consists largely of bacon, yogurt and frozen stuffed chicken breasts.

"It's just like any other bad habit," he said. "Part of it is just that vegetables are a little intimidating. I'm not afraid of zucchinis, but I just don't know how to cook them."

The food industry has tried to make eating vegetables easier. Sales of convenience vegetables, like packages of cut broccoli designed to go right into the microwave, are growing. Washed, ready-to-eat bagged salads are a $3-billion-a-year business.

But that doesn't necessarily mean people are eating more vegetables. It just means they are shifting their vegetable budget from one place to another, Mr. Balzer said. An organic cucumber might replace a conventionally grown one. A bag of lettuce replaces a head.

To be sure, vegetables are making strides in certain circles. Women, as well as people who are older and more educated and have higher incomes, tend to eat more vegetables, said Dr. Foltz, the pediatrician who worked on the C.D.C. report.

The vegetable, especially when grown from heirloom seeds on small farms, is held in such high esteem that knowing the farmer who grows the food is a form of valuable social currency. Vegetables are becoming high art. At Sotheby's on Thursday night, the vegetable auction was part of a daylong event called "The Art of Farming," raising nearly $250,000 to help hunger organizations, immigrant farmers and children without access to vegetables.

But vegetables are also becoming important on the other end of the economic equation. An increasing number of the nation's 6,000 farmers' markets allow shoppers to buy produce with food stamps. Urban gardens are springing up in vacant lots and on rooftops. Nearly every state now has programs that send fresh vegetables into poorer neighborhoods and school cafeterias.

The vegetable even has the first lady, Michelle Obama, on its side. She planted an organic garden on the White House lawn and talks up vegetables as part of her "Let's Move" campaign against childhood obesity.

The government keeps trying, too, to get its message across. It now recommends four and a half cups of fruits and vegetables (that's nine servings) for people who eat 2,000 calories a day. Some public health advocates have argued that when the guidelines are updated later this year, they should be made even clearer. One proposal is to make Americans think about it visually, filling half the plate or bowl with vegetables.

But clear guidance probably isn't enough. Health officials now concede that convincing a nation that shuns vegetables means making vegetables more affordable and more available.

"We have to make the healthy choice the easy choice," Dr. Foltz said. And the choices need to become ingrained.

For another study whose results were announced this week, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, spent three years examining the difference between children who participated in the Berkeley Unified School District's "edible schoolyard" program, in which gardening and cooking are woven into the school day, and children who didn't.

The students who gardened ate one and half servings more of vegetables a day than those who weren't in the program.

For students who don't have access to a school garden, perhaps the full-court press by the baby-carrot producers will have some effect. The iPhone application, for example, is a video game called Xtreme Xrunch Kart that starts when a player crunches a carrot (or makes a crunchlike sound) into the phone's microphone.

But as in past attempts to revive the vegetable, none of this will necessarily be enough to change a clear aversion to eating vegetables.

"Eating vegetables is a lot less fun than eating flavor-blasted Doritos," said Marcia Mogelonsly, a senior analyst for Mintel, a global marketing firm. "You will always have to fight that." 
Story First Published: September 25, 2010 09:19 IST

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