It is undisputed that the United States is enduring the most serious public health crisis in more than 100 years. What is less well-known is the severity of the underlying crisis that has compounded the effects of the virulent coronavirus — long-term, persistent underconsumption of fruits and vegetables in our country.
What Constitutes A Consumption Crisis?
At the Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH), we do not use the term “crisis” lightly. Leaning into plant-forward dietary patterns and regularly eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables support both short- (e.g., immune function, nutrient adequacy) and long-term (e.g., reduction of risk factors for diet-related chronic diseases) health, as well as emotional well-being., However, any way you look at it, as a society, we are chronic underachievers at eating our fruits and veggies and, subsequently, short-changing the health and well-being of generations of Americans.
According to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), there is strong scientific evidence that healthy eating patterns are associated with positive health outcomes and higher intakes of fruits and vegetables are consistently identified as characteristics of healthy eating patterns. Still, of the 1 ½ to 2 cups of fruits per day and 2-4 cups of vegetables  recommended for adults 19 years and older, current intake in this population is just 0.9 cups of fruits and just 1.6 cups of vegetables per day, respectively—well below even the range minimums. A different way of putting it is this—a whopping 9 out of 10 adults simply do not get enough. Finally, and most concerning, these intake levels have not changed significantly since 2003-2004.6
In 2020, PBH commissioned an update to our trended fruit and vegetable consumption research, State of the Plate: America’s Fruit & Vegetable Consumption Trends. In this research, consumers report all the fruits and vegetables they eat and drink, inside and outside of the home. State of the Plate 2020 is now hot off the presses. Sadly, the news is not as encouraging as we would hope. America’s fruit and vegetable consumption continues to erode over time. A couple of highlights:
Fruits: While three-fourths of the population consume fruit during the week, average consumption is 5.8 eating occasions over the same time period—in other words, less than once per day. Since the 2015 report, fruit has seen slight increases driven by in-home occasions (away from home has remained flat). Most alarming, sharp decreases in consumption are seen in children, particularly ages 1-3 years of age, typically the heaviest consumers.
Vegetables: Nearly all individuals (95% of the population) report consuming vegetables in a typical week, on average, 7.5 times or about once per day. However, vegetable intake has declined in 5 out of 8 age groups since 2015. The greatest declines are seen in adults 51-70 years old—older adults have historically been among the largest consumers of vegetables.
Fruits And Vegetables Are Center Of The Plate (Not Only Side Dish Or Condiment) Material.
The DGA point to fruits and vegetables as 2 of the top 3 food groups under-consumed in the US,3 advising Americans to “make every bite count”— while their companion, MyPlate, depicts fruits and vegetables as the focal point of the plate with the recommendation to “make half your plate fruits and vegetables.” Unfortunately, several changes in eating behavior have been contributing to veggies increasingly moving off the plate including their declining use as a side dish; decreased eating occasions of lettuce/salads, a mainstay for vegetable consumption; and, finally, losses in eating occasions of onions, tomatoes, and lettuce, commonly consumed vegetables frequently paired with burgers and sandwiches.8,
We Must Create Meaningful And Lasting Change – Together.
We believe it’s not enough to talk about this chronic consumption crisis—we must act and we must do so together, to effectively create sustained and impactful behavior change. A multi-sector approach, reaching all points across the produce supply chain, in concert with the broader food system, will be critical to create “surround sound” action emphasizing behavior-based solutions.
Ultimately, we need to start with understanding consumer behavior—including our own. In addition to the insights illuminated by State of the Plate, PBH has invested in generating new behavioral science insights, which led to the development of an evidence-based approach we call the KNOW-FEEL-DO™ Behavioral Framework. This philosophy was created with behavioral scientists to help overcome the knowledge-action gap that is pervasive among fruit and vegetable habits. These insights tell us that:
- Knowing the importance of eating fruits and vegetables is not enough. We must focus instead on creating emotional pulls (feel) and making it easy for people to act on this knowledge and emotion (doing).
- Repeated exposure to fruits and vegetables is likely to lead to longer-term habits (easier doing), and also to increased enjoyment of these foods (more feelings).
- As an industry, we must make it easier for consumers at all stages of the fruit and vegetable consumption journey or experience – from finding and buying fruits and vegetables, to storing and prepping, and ultimately, to eating and enjoying! If it is not easy and somewhat enjoyable, people are not likely to add more fruits and vegetables to their routines, and consumption will continue to decline.
- As we work together to make fruit and vegetable behaviors easy, the focus should be on creating sustainable habits rather than achieving recommended goals. That is, instead of telling people HOW MANY fruits and vegetables they should eat each day, let’s inspire them with realistic, everyday habit-forming ideas – such as aiming to eat fruits or vegetables first at a mealtime, such as breakfast, lunch or dinner, on most days. Or better yet – simply Have A Plant®! Habit formation requires a consistent context, repetition and reward. In order to become a habit, the behavior has to become automatic, or EASY.
- New fruit and vegetable habits are more likely when we build upon current behaviors.
- Fruit is fairly versatile, primarily consumed at breakfast, lunch, and as snacks – with snacking and side dish occasions driving growth for this category. Vegetables, on the other hand, are generally consumed at dinner as a side dish.8 There’s an opportunity to help consumers with new habits built upon when and how they typically enjoy fruits and vegetables.
- In addition, one-fifth of fruit, and 30 percent of vegetables, are consumed as an ingredient – indicating room for growth. We know people are adding fruits to hot and cold cereals, as well as yogurt; and that they’re trying vegetables in a variety of dishes including salads, sandwiches, and ethnic cuisine (e.g., Italian, Mexican, and Asian dishes).8 Let’s inspire them with new ingredient ideas and delicious flavor combinations born out of these insights and celebrate how consumers can easily enjoy adding fruits and vegetables to favorite meals and snacks.
The Time Is Now For A New Era of Conscious Consumption.
America’s eroding fruit and vegetable consumption is a vulnerability that the COVID-19 pandemic has further illuminated, and there has never been a more critical time for a multi-sector, united effort to elevate eating fruits and vegetables as a national priority – and making that choice accessible and EASY for all Americans. Authoritative guidance such as the 2020-2025 DGA note that fruits and vegetables are foundational to healthy eating patterns; the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has declared 2021 as the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables. Yet, our State of the Plate research indicates consumption is evaporating each year. We must act NOW to reverse this trend.
To that end, PBH and its members have declared the next five years “A New Era of Conscious Consumption,” focusing on truly moving the needle to help all Americans easily enjoy more fruits and vegetables every day and shift consumption trends for the future. While many Americans know “conscious consumption” benefits their health and wellbeing – as well as their families, communities and environment – this mindset may sound daunting and unattainable. PBH’s insights stress fruit and vegetable behaviors must be easily transitioned into new habits; this new era of conscious consumption will flip the philosophy on its head to consciously make new fruit and vegetable eating habits unconscious, automatic, and enjoyable behaviors.
To facilitate this new era, as part of its Lead The Change Movement, PBH is initiating a 3-part approach:
- Conducting custom consumer behavioral research to identify trends and increase new, more sustainable fruit and vegetable eating habits;
- Assembling a multi-sector coalition focused on collaborating and celebrating innovations to support consumers in their new fruit and vegetable behaviors; and
- Convening the first-ever National Fruit & Vegetable Consumption Summit in 2022, to further emphasize behavior-based opportunities for elevating fruit and vegetable consumption as a national priority.
The entire food system – from farms and academic centers to suppliers, retailers, manufacturers, culinary leaders as well as food and lifestyle influencers to public health – must unite to identify and reinforce new fruit and vegetable consumption norms to collectively reverse America’s chronic consumption crisis. After all, we owe it to Americans to help them easily eat and enjoy (and maybe even love) more fruits and vegetables for improved health and happiness. Please join us in making this vision a reality! #haveaplant