The fruit and vegetable industry works tirelessly to increase demand for its healthy products, whether through food assistance programs, schools, corner stores, restaurants or other places where consumers make food decisions. Even more shocking? Unlike other hot topics of today, this work is completely noncontroversial, as there is significant scientific agreement that fruit and vegetable consumption is well below recommended levels and that intake needs to be dramatically improved for the betterment of individuals and our society as a whole.
The Importance Of Fruit & Vegetable Consumption – Unprecedented Consensus
Think about it. What other food and nutrition behavior change could confer a larger benefit to society as we know it – life expectancy, health and well-being, government spending, medical costs, the list goes on.
To realize the full potential of fruits and vegetables, more people need to eat them, in greater amounts, and more often. How do we do that? ALL HANDS ON DECK. To borrow from the 2022 National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, this endeavor will require a holistic approach to increasing fruit and vegetable intake. Imagine this – fruit and vegetable consumption is a national priority and THE national nutrition priority, complete with earmarked funding for fruit and vegetable research, focused nutrition education, dedicated promotion and incentivized consumption. What if there was unprecedented collaboration across sectors and the consumer consumption journey, as well as a thorough understanding of behavioral science and habit formation to facilitate new fruit and vegetable habits in all ages and life stages?
Making Fruit & Vegetable Intake A National Priority – The Destination & Journey
The National Strategy is a start. With its goal to end hunger in America and increase healthy eating and physical activity by 2030 so fewer Americans experience diet-related diseases, fruits and vegetables were highly featured in actions the federal government is pledging to take to improve nutrition security in the US through various efforts, including:
- Expanding incentives for fruits and vegetables in SNAP
- Increasing promotion of fruits and vegetables in federal facilities
- Facilitating greater access to local fruits and vegetables
- Improving access to “food is medicine” interventions such as produce prescriptions
The National Strategy also recommends that:
- State, local and territory government provide incentives and technical assistance for year-round mobile produce markets and that the private sector invests in providing these to people who are underserved by current food assistance programming.
- States collaborate with non-profit and/or community-based organizations to create state-funded produce prescription programs for lower-income individuals and families.
- Health insurance companies consider providing or expanding coverage of nutrition services, such as produce prescriptions.
These initiatives have the potential to be quite effective, based on evidence from USDA’s food assistance programs. For example:
- WIC: The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) “benefit bump” has resulted in more than triple the amount of fruits and vegetables purchased among families participating in WIC and increased produce consumption in children. Also, a majority of WIC caregivers say that program participation resulted in changed eating behaviors within their family with approximately one-fourth of study participants saying they increased fruit and vegetable intake.
- SNAP: Research indicates that increasing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) shoppers’ purchasing power and increasing farmer’s market incentives improves fruit and vegetable consumption.,
- School Nutrition: The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act standards increased the diet quality of lunch with the fruit score increasing from 77% to 95% and vegetables increasing from 75% to 82%.
Consumerizing Fruit & Vegetable Consumption
At a general population level, significant support is needed to close the gap in eating more fruits and vegetables.
You’ve heard of 5-A-Day, Fruits & Veggies – More Matters, and now, Have A Plant®. Have A Plant® is different. It represents the culmination-to-date of behavioral research showing how fruit and vegetable habits are and are not formed. In a nutshell habits are best formed if they are easy (e.g., piggybacking on a current behavior – like adding lettuce and tomato to a burger or veggies to pizza) and rewarding (e.g., physically feeling better or feeling proud when serving a healthy meal to the family).
More tidbits from the 2022 PBH Hacks to Habits research include:
- Different habits are likely needed for fruit vs. vegetables.
- Having fruit and vegetable habits – whether shopping or consumption habits – leads to overall increased consumption.
- Automaticity is key in habit formation. Shopping automaticity is stronger than consumption automaticity because once fruits and vegetables are in the home, more is required to prepare and eat them.
- Those who eat fruits and vegetables most often have more fruit- and vegetable-related habits.
- When those who eat fruits and vegetables less frequently become aware of produce consumption hacks, their confidence to consume them more often increases.
Fruits & Vegetables – Fuel for the Future
March is National Nutrition Month®, an annual campaign created 50 years ago to spotlight informed food choices and raise the profile on helping consumers develop healthful eating and physical activity habits. Its sponsor is the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) and this year’s theme is “Fuel for the Future.”
The following are some AND fruit and vegetable-forward messages that any registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) and friend of nutrition can share with consumers:
- Enjoy more plant-based meals and snacks.
- Buy foods in season and shop locally when possible.
- Start a container or backyard garden to grow food at home.
- Include your favorite cultural foods and traditions.
- Eat foods in various forms including fresh, frozen, canned and dried.
- Avoid fad diets that promote unnecessary restrictions.
- Practice gratitude for your body by giving it the fuel it needs.
No Matter How You Slice It, Produce IS Fuel For The Future!
In order to increase fruit and vegetable consumption, we must have persistent action, laser focus and enduring commitment. The National Strategy can serve as a model for what can be done in states and localities, as well as the private sector, to lead to the necessary leadership and coordination across sectors.
Here’s how you can help with perhaps the only public health nutrition topic that everyone can agree on:
- Call on the federal government to make fruits and vegetables as the highest national nutrition policy;
- Participate in an all hands on deck approach to increasing fruit and vegetable intake throughout the consumption journey; and
- Empower and support your audience in implementing and sustaining fruit and vegetable hacks and habits! #haveplant