Fruits and Vegetables: the Backbone of Food Equity

July 21, 2021

by Nancy E. Roman, President and CEO of Partnership for a Healthier America

CEO’s Corner

The staff and leadership of PHA gathered recently to set goals for fiscal year 2022 and, after three hours of excited debate and deliberation, landed on a basic truth at the center of our work: Vegetables and Fruits.

At first, we were underwhelmed with our own insight. PHA does a lot of other great work to transform the food landscape in pursuit of health equity, such as partnerships to get whole grains on menus, sugars out of yogurt, or to drive the sale of healthier foods. But as the afternoon wore on, the more clearly we saw that each one of those partnerships matters more in the context of a robust consumption of vegetables and fruits.

So in FY22, which began this month, PHA will work to build demand for and to increase the supply of vegetables and fruits and other good foods in communities across America.

We are calling out vegetables and fruits because only one in ten American adults meets the federal recommendations for fruit and vegetable consumption. Men, young adults, and low-income individuals show the lowest rates of fruit and vegetable consumption overall. Americans consume more than the recommended levels of meat, eggs, nuts, and grains. French fries remain the number one vegetable consumed by children as young as 12-14 months. American adults consume, on average, 46.4 pounds of potatoes per year, the highest consumption rate of any vegetable.

Fruits and Vegetables chart to show current children and adult fruit and vegetable consumption.

I confess to occasionally wishing the truth were more complex. Both in business and in non-profit work, there can be a strong temptation to reach for the new, the shiny, and even the complicated — particularly when something seemingly simple has proven so challenging — like increasing the consumption of produce. We’ve known for decades that vegetables and fruits are the backbone of strong health. And yet wide swaths of the country lack sufficient access to them.

There are a myriad of reasons for this. Chief among them is a lack of infrastructure and a lack of political will. Since the early 1950s, our food system has prioritized convenience over health. Now that the system is built for ultra-processed, refined carbohydrates with long shelf lives, there is precious little infrastructure to support vegetables and fruits.

We must rethink the food system at every level. If we want Americans to eat more vegetables and fruits, we will need to change the incentives and infrastructure for growing, harvesting, transporting, storing, and selling those crops. Otherwise, vegetables and fruits will remain an unleveraged tool for health.

There’s never been a better time to change this. COVID-19 has shown us that food and its connection to health are critical. This would not only be good for the community but good for the wallet. Even modest changes in diet quality can result in significant savings in Medicare and Medicaid costs. Estimates show that increasing daily consumption of vegetables and fruits by one additional portion (½ cup) per day can account for increased longevity.

So at the end of our deliberation, PHA has put vegetables and fruits on center stage in our annual goals for this new fiscal year:

  • We will deliver 10.3 million servings of produce through our Good Food for All program in cities throughout the Midwest and beyond, as we learn about which vegetables and fruits are most appealing and what folks can pay for them.
  • Through our Pass the Love campaign, we are delivering plant forward meals in partnership with PHA Honorary Chair Michelle Obama and the adorable Netflix characters, Waffles + Mochi, as we learn about how these meals compare with fast food in taste and convenience. (After all, that is our competition.)
  • We are working to raise awareness with pediatricians and other providers about the importance of vegetables for our earliest eaters through our Veggies Early & Often campaign.
  • We are going to work with companies and entrepreneurs to innovate new ways of bringing quality and affordable vegetables, fruits, and other good foods to the supply chain.

Increasing the supply and demand for nutrient-dense vegetables and fruits is the backbone of good health. Yes, we need more whole grains, and we need less sugar and unrefined carbohydrates in our diets. But more fruits, vegetables, and legumes is a top-tier priority.

So we’re all about that even as we work in other areas. If you see opportunity to partner or believe we can help accelerate your work in this space, reach out. It is a journey.