(Jan. 21) A new consumption study strikes a dissonant chord at the end of a harmonious 2002 for the Produce for Better Health Foundation, Wilmington, Del.

Increased federal and state funding and the introduction of a new marketing campaign — 5 a Day the Color Way — were highlights of the year at PBH.

A lowlight was the December release of a study that finds that people are eating fewer fruits and vegetables. The average American eats 754 servings of fresh and processed fruits and vegetables per year, down from 820 in 1997 and 890 in 1990. The study found that obesity levels are lowest among people who eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, but that only one in five Americans is getting 5 a Day.

“We were shocked,” said Barbara Berry, PBH’s vice president of programs. “Based on the USDA data we had seen, we thought consumption had improved.”

The new study, by the NPD Group, drew on more recent data than previous studies, Berry said. Rather than relying on U.S. Department of Agriculture figures from 1997, PBH could study data from as recent as 2001. This was the first NPD study commissioned by PBH.

The foundation hopes to use the researcher more — even if the news isn’t good. Unlike USDA studies, the NPD study measured how many fruits and vegetables were actually consumed, not just bought.

The study made other sobering findings. The number of dishes served in home-cooked meals is down, and what usually gets cut out isn’t dessert but side dishes like salads and vegetables. The average meal in 2001 featured 3.6 dishes, down from 3.8 in 1992 and 4.1 in 1986.

The study also found that although more women know about 5 a Day, men are better at reaching the consumption mark. Berry attributed the finding not to men’s being more health-conscious, but to the fact that they eat more of every kind of food, good and bad.

Another key finding: The older the consumer, the more likely he or she is to hit the 5 a Day target. About 37% of those over 65 did so, compared to 30% of those aged 55-64, 24% for the 45-54 set, and on down.

That drop becomes precipitous among children, making up perhaps the most disturbing discovery in the NPD study, Berry said, adding that only 3% of children are getting their 5 a Day.

A depressing corollary: Families with kids are less likely to eat 5 a Day than families without kids.

“That’s terrible,” Berry said. “You’d think it would be the opposite, that families with kids would do a better job. We will put a lot of emphasis on reaching kids and families. I’ve talked with pediatricians who have 5-year-old patients who weigh 120 pounds and are at risk for diabetes — it’s scary.”

Nutritionist and PBH adviser Tracy Fox said that as depressing as the findings were, they were not entirely surprising.

“Unfortunately, we’ve seen the fattening of America,” said Fox, president of Food, Nutrition & Policy Consultants LLC, Bethesda, Md. “More meals eaten outside the home, with larger portions. We have a tough road to go. It’s difficult for us to compete with the big bucks that are out there. We need more commitment from government, to get federal policies in line with federal guidelines.

”Fortunately, PBH may be ideally equipped now to get the word out to children and their families, with the kid-friendly 5 a Day the Color Way campaign and pilot programs in elementary schools in Florida and other U.S. states.

But getting the message out won’t be enough.

“We know awareness is up, but it’s behavior that has to change,” Berry said.