(July 6) Low-income Americans spend considerably less money on fruits and vegetables than better-off Americans.

And even when their cash flows improve a bit, poorer consumers are apt to spend their food dollars on something other than produce.

Those are among the findings in a new U.S. Department of Agriculture study, “Low-Income Households’ Expenditures on Fruits and Vegetables.”

On average, low-income households (defined as those with incomes below 130% of the poverty line, which, for a family of four in 2000, was $17,600) spent $3.59 per capita per week on fruits and vegetables in 2000, while higher-income households (all other households) spent $5.02. The study’s statistics were derived from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey, which compared consumer behavior in 1991 to that in 2000.

PRIORITIES

When low-income households saw minor increases in their incomes, the extra money did not go to fruit and vegetable purchases, the study found.

By contrast, similar percentage increases in higher-income households did translate into more produce buys. The reason for that discrepancy, researchers said, was that people in low-income households often consider meats, cereal and bakery products to be more essential, and so will buy those instead.

The news is not news to some.

The Produce for Better Health Foundation, Wilmington, Del., has been working with government agencies and private companies for years on ways to get low-income people to eat more produce.

One hurdle, said Elizabeth Pivonka, the foundation’s president, is the misperception that fresh fruits and vegetables are too expensive.

“From a nutrition point of view, fruits and vegetables in any form are cheaper than other foods,” Pivonka said. “Part of the problem is that when low-income people eat out, they’re more likely to buy fast food because it’s cheaper than fine dining, and of course fast food, until recently, didn’t have many fruit and vegetable options available.”

EDUCATION PROGRAM

PBH is working with the government’s Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program to encourage higher produce consumption. Under one proposed program, food-stamp recipients could get more stamps if they used them to buy fresh produce.

Pivonka also pointed out that the new free fruit and vegetable program outlined in the child nutrition bill, passed by Congress June 23 and signed by President Bush June 30, requires that the majority of participating schools be those in which at least half of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.