Getting young people to eat their fresh vegetables has never been especially easy, and theory suggests it will not get much easier as kids grow into adults.

Younger people spend less money for fresh vegetables consumed at home than their parents and will not easily change their consumption patterns as they age, according to a new U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service study, "Younger Consumers Exhibit Less Demand for Fresh Vegetables." 

“Unless something happens to alter how the current young make food choices, they likely will exhibit a lower level of demand for at-home fresh vegetables in their later years than today’s older generations currently exhibit,” the report said.

The study used consumer expenditures data from 1982-2003, said Gary Lucier, economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service and co-author with USDA economist Hayden Stewart.

Stewart said the study doesn’t necessarily refute the idea that all consumers may eat more fresh vegetables as they grow older, but the data suggest that younger consumers start from a lower base level and remain at every age point behind the generations of cohorts before them. 

“We tried to separate the effects of aging from the effects of when you were born,” he said.

“It’s entirely possible that, say, my own demand for fresh vegetables might grow with age to at least some point, and my parents, their kind of fresh vegetable demand to age trajectory might move the same way,” he said. “Even for my kids, that is possible.”

Stewart said he could not speculate about whether demand for fresh vegetables will continue to sag for consumers not yet born, but said the trend appears to be convincing.

“Certainly, among the (cohorts), we looked at there was a clear trend of decreasing demand for younger,  demanding less than older,” he said.

The report uses inferences from consumer expenditures that to make inferences about the fruit and vegetable consumption.

Economists found a strong relationship between a household’s per-capita expenditures for fresh vegetables for home consumption and the head of household’s birth year.

“What the data tells you that people that are born in a certain time period behave similarly because of characteristics of life when they were born and they carry those behaviors with them,” Lucier said.

Lucier said the data shows that younger consumers that eat less than their parents eat will carry that behavior forward over time.

 â€œIf someone is eating fewer vegetables today, 20 years from now, they will still be eating fewer vegetables, and 40 years from now, they will be eating fewer vegetables,” Lucier said.

The study said marketplace could feel the effects in various ways. Compared to their parents, younger consumers may buy smaller quantities of fresh vegetables, purchase a narrower mix of vegetables that excludes expensive items, or both.

Unlike the 1960s, Lucier said modern lifestyles do not necessarily revolve around the family dinner hour. Vegetables that used to be eaten at home more often, such as turnips and sweet potatoes, are rarely purchased by the young.

Changing behavior may be more difficult and expensive, Stewart said.

“If people are eating on the go and eating out all the time, it kind of argues that you should try to get more fruits and vegetables in the foodservice arena,” he said. “The produce industry needs to work harder at getting restaurants and foodservice operators to use products.”

In addition, marketers could emphasize convenience of fresh vegetables for at-home use, Stewart said.

“Some innovations in fresh-cut produce had a significant effect on demand for fresh vegetables — things like broccoli florets and bagged salads — help to stimulate increased demand for fresh vegetables, and you would hope that more such innovations down the road would do the same,” Stewart said.

If prepared foods and away-from-home foods fail to fill the gap created by reduced demand for fresh vegetables at home, the report said government programs to educate Americans about the role of vegetable consumption to health might be important.

Weekly Per capita spending on fresh vegetables, 1982-2003

Head of household’s birth year affected how much money was spent for fresh vegetables

Birth Year       1982     1988     1994      2000      2003
1957-1961      0.81     1.17       1.16      1.19       1.32
1937-1941      1.43     1.59       1.44      1.94       1.82 
1927-1931      1.60     1.68       1.67      2.04       1.74
Source: USDA ERS