How can we get Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables?  

In 2019, an estimated 11% of Americans ate the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables each day. The numbers have not changed much over the last 25 years. Where have we failed? Telling people that they need to eat more fruits and vegetables does not seem to be working. Can we do better? I hope so. Let’s set a goal of 22% of Americans eating the recommended servings by 2032. Many of you will say that is not enough. OK. Let’s try the same old arguments and see if we have increased beyond 11% in the next ten years. I propose using systems thinking to create a value chain to double consumption in 10 years.

My modest proposal. Let’s start with some brainstorming—my brain. Some background first. I was part of a Postharvest Systems Team at the University of Georgia Experiment Station. Our location was Experiment, Georgia. I am not making this up. We began studying transport of vegetables from the field to the processing plant. Jeff Jordan, an economist, suggested following fresh fruits and vegetables to market. Stan Prussia introduced the systems approach. I was the fruit and veggie guy. My role was to follow the changes in quality of the fruit or veggie as it went though the chain. In the early days we focused on short supply chains. Later we turned our attention to longer value chains. Apologies to my readers as my brain is almost 9 years past its expiration date. A recent reading of Postharvest Handling: A Systems Approach refreshed my memory.

Consumer research. Value chains start with the consumer. Who is in the target market? It’s not the 11% who already reach these goals. Is another 11% persuadable? They are fruit and veggie eaters who do not eat enough produce, yet. How do we get them to eat more? First, we would engage consumers through surveys, focus groups, and other means. The goal here is to understand their wants and needs. Why do they buy fresh produce? How do they prepare it before eating? What are their concerns about price? What do they look for when it comes to quality? What items would they buy and eat more of if what is available doesn’t measure up? What foods compete for their shopping dollar? Why do they sometimes prefer processed foods? How does season affect their purchases?

After sorting through the mounds of data, we need to identify specific patterns. Are the results consistent or are there more than one distinct group? We want to be careful that we don’t fall into the trap of providing average quality at an average price. That is a guaranteed losing strategy!

Some possible directions we could go in systems thinking to reach our goal include:

  1. Learn what consumers dislike about current selections available to them,
  2. Determine which specific fruits and vegetables are most problematic,
  3. Establish quality specifications on what they would like for select fruits and vegetables,
  4. Tie those specifications to willingness to pay,
  5. Segment the market into distinct target groupings,
  6. Compare inadequacies of fresh foods to those of processed counterparts,
  7. Optimize handling techniques to reduce damage and loss of quality,
  8. Assess optimal harvest maturity for handling and quality at point of sale, and
  9. Develop varieties of selections that provide superior quality to withstand handling.

This analysis is only one person’s view who had experience with postharvest value chains. A session with experienced people of varied backgrounds would lead to a longer list. Paring down the list to a realistic set of steps would follow. The goal is not to please everyone. The goal is to reach enough persuadable consumers to buy and eat more fresh produce.

Many reasons exist to buy fresh produce. Health may not be the only reason. Saving the earth or being part of a movement might not work for everyone. Cutting back on meat and eating natural foods might appeal to persuadables. These motivations might or might not be accurate. What matters is that they could lead people to eat more fruits and vegetables. Our focus is on the goal. Using a range of motivations is necessary to achieve that goal.

Marketing may be a sleazy way to meet our goal. Few efforts are more effective in this country than marketing. We market ideas on the need to eat more fruits and vegetables, but the message isn’t getting through. If we can’t beat Big Food, join it! I am not talking public service announcements. Do they make us want to rush out to buy and eat lots of kale and oranges? I am talking big money with splashy ads that highlight benefits. Where is the money coming from? Government could be one source. Social service organizations who believe in the goal could be another.

Health can be one message, but it should not be the only one. It may not even be the primary message! Go back to what we learned from surveying the persuadable 11%. What do they seek out in fresh food? What are the main motivations for selecting and buying fresh produce? How can the messages attract persuadables to buy and eat more of it? How can this campaign keep the target population to maintain this newfound habit? Remember, advertising not only introduces an idea to be effective. It must hammer it home day-after-day, week-after-week, month-after-month. It must get into consumer’s minds, into their psyche.

Novel products and convenience should be at the forefront of the campaign. Trends that work include baby carrots, fresh-cut fruit, pre-chopped veggies, and plastic-wrapped potatoes. Meal-kits appeal to upscale consumers. Will lower-cost versions for local distribution provide access for not-so-upscale shoppers? Other flashy items, with specific attention to kids, deserve some consideration. Call on cartoon characters to promote these items. Envision a flood of ads featuring the Veggie Tales characters. Do some or all these alternatives offend our sensibilities? Are we part of the 11% who meet current guidelines? Have we bought into the goal of upping consumption among the persuadable 11%? What tradeoffs are we willing to make?

Pricing is critical. Should we only target the upscale consumer or is social justice also important? How do we achieve a balance? Do we work with local gardens and farmers markets? Can these outlets provide enough fruits and vegetables to make an impact? How do we keep quality high, prices low, and waste down? Careful attention to developing value chains is essential.

box of fresh romaine, peppers, tomatoes and spinach
How long will these veggies stay fresh?

Longer keeping life of available items will be a plus. Emphasizing a long shelf life sacrifices flavor for appearance. What is more important is how long an item will maintain quality after we buy it. Fresh produce rots. What is necessary is that it does not rot in a reasonable period of time at home.

Adjust our target audience as we get more feedback up and down the value chain. Consumer specifications obtained at the beginning of the project will need tweaking. Target groups identified early, may need adjustment. Like quality of fresh produce is a moving target, so are consumer wants and needs. Getting shoppers to buy and eat more fresh fruits and vegetables is a continuous process.

Bottom line. Most food professionals agree that Americans should eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. Neither shaming nor encouraging consumers to change their diet seems to work. All or nothing approaches also are losers. My recommendations are only suggestions. Others out there might have a better perspective. Unless we set achievable goals and develop systematic solutions, we will fail. Understanding the perspective of those we wish to help is the first step to getting them to change. Not everyone thinks like we do. To be successful, we need to persuade people who do not think like we do.

Next week: Ultra-processing strikes back

3 thoughts on “How can we get Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables?  

  1. Allan Griff offers his insights:

    There are many non-nutritional reasons why people choose or avoid foods: taste, image, tradition, time, cost, anxiety relief, social, and more.
    F&V carry image of weak, also obedience to science, which clashes with need to look strong and risky, classic images that make people (usually men) attractive as protective mates. This contrasts with the benign image of vegetarians and the angelizing of plants.
    The gender difference is reinforced by association of F&V with flowers.
    There is also feeling of independence from parental orders, usually Mama, like “no dessert until you eat your …”. If there is a Papa present, he may not be a model.
    Growing up means controlling the want to do whatever, whenever, wherever — something many adults still have.
    True independence means you are free to do what makes sense, but I’m in the minority.
    We shouldn’t assume all people live in families, or even eat together.
    Analogy with tobacco, finally recognized as harmful, but still widely used and socially significant.

    Fruits are more readily accepted because of sugar content and less need for cooking. Baked food (pies) and dried fruits such as raisins solve fridge problems. There are ways to make veggies acceptable and convenient, too, but usually time-consuming and seldom exciting. The excitement has to come from pride in self management.

    Maybe best solution for some is a multivitamin/mineral and let starches do the gut-transporting job. Oatmeal with raisins and/or peanut butter.

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  2. Growing up as I did in California, I never realized so many of my fellow Americans didn’t eat have access to the vegetables that I was used to because they lived in the part of the country where the ground was frozen a couple of months every year. So part of the problem is the folks just are used to eating year round produce. Another part of the conundrum is all the bad press we’re surrounded by regarding basic culinary ingredients like salt and fats. I sometimes feel like I’m going to scream if I read one more article by one of my zealous colleagues praising the nutritive value of a certain vegetable and following up with how it’s also low-sodium and low-fat. It’s why we need more cooks. Using simple traditional culinary ingredients like olive oil and salt, the cook transforms edible plants into soups and stews and all manner of other delicious dishes.

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    1. I have no problem with adding sugar, fat, and salt in home-prepared dishes or formulated foods in reasonable amounts. What I object to is the double standard where sugar, fat, and salt are acceptable as culinary ingredients but condemned as ingredients in industrial formulations at similar levels.

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