(May 6) WASHINGTON, D.C. — Is the industry getting enough? Not by a long shot.

If the government put its money where its message is, spending on fruits and vegetables would be much higher, according to a recently released study.

The government’s paltry outlays for fruit and vegetable support, promotion and research was the focus of a report called “The Fruit and Vegetable Consumption Challenge: How Federal Spending Falls Short of Addressing Public Health Needs.” The report, developed by M&R Strategic Services for the Produce for Better Health Foundation, was released in late April.

Although fruit and vegetables comprise 33% of the total food intake recommended by the USDA, the report said only 4.5% of total USDA spending in 2000 directly or indirectly promoted consumption of fruits and vegetables. The USDA’s budget for 2002 is $76.6 billion, similar to 2000 levels.

“This report shows where the USDA has been in the past. Great kudos should go to Ann Veneman for doing something about it,” said Elizabeth Pivonka, president of the Wilmington, Del.-based Produce for Better Health Foundation.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced April 25 it would expand its role in the National 5 a Day partnership, including increasing consumer education opportunities and strengthening collaboration among federal, state and industry organizations to promote fruit and vegetable consumption.

How that translates into dollars and cents is unclear. But the report said it is apparent fruits and vegetables have been given short shrift until now.

A General Accounting Office report on the same theme — federal support of fruit and vegetable program — may be published by late May, Pivonka said. Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., requested the GAO report, acting on the encouragement of the produce industry.

Robert Guenther, vice president of government and public affairs for the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Alexandria, Va., said the PBH report lays the foundation for discussions with Congress and the Bush administration on reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which sets rules for many federal feeding programs.

CONSUMPTION GAPS

The executive summary of the report noted that PBH contracted with M&R Strategic Services to quantify the gap between recommended and actual consumption levels of fruits and vegetables. The study also examined the allocation of federal funds to promote fruit and vegetable consumption.

“Federal spending that helps to promote fruit and vegetable consumption is meager in comparison to the federal promotion of other food products that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends be eaten in moderation,” the report said.

The report also said closing the consumption gap between recommended and actual consumption levels of fruits and vegetables would take decades if existing marketing forces and programs continue unchanged.

For example, the report said 33 years would be needed to close the adjusted consumption gap for vegetables; 128 years would be needed to close the consumption gap for fruit, given the current rate of per capita increase. The rate of annual per capita consumption increase — based on the average from 1989-90 to 1997-98 — was assumed to be 0.6% for fruits and 1.1% for vegetables.Poor dietary habits and health problems associated with those habits have substantial economic consequences for the U.S. health care systems, the report noted.

Total economic costs of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer are $81.6 billion annually , and those costs are growing at 3.8% each year, the report said.

Although the science is far from certain, the study said increasing fruit and vegetable consumption to targeted levels could reduce outlays by the tens of billions.

FUNDING GAPS

Meanwhile, chasmlike gaps for fruit and vegetable funding were apparent when comparing federal spending for all food groups.

Relative to federal spending on research, the report said only 11% of food and nutrition research projects are devoted to fruit and vegetables.

What’s more, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spends less than 2% of its total budget for nutrition promotion and education in its chronic disease prevention budget. The CDC budget in 2001 was $3.8 billion, according to federal budget documents. The report said the funding gap is “chronic and not likely to be closed left strictly to market forces. ”Specific policy recommendations from the report were:

  • Require the Food Stamp Program’s state-based nutrition education efforts be designed to achieve the Dietary Guidelines, with a focus on vegetables and fruit.

  • Offer double coupons or bonus value food stamp credit for fresh fruits and vegetables via coupon or Electronic Business Transaction for Food Stamp Program participants who use their food stamps to purchase fruits and vegetables.

  • Develop an evaluation component of state food stamp nutrition programs that is based on results, such as increased fruit and vegetable consumption by large numbers of participants.

  • Modify the Women, Infants and Children food package to include more nutrient dense fruit and vegetables.

  • Provide a more targeted approach to WIC nutrition education efforts with a focus on fruits and vegetables.

  • Subsidize food purchases of WIC program participants to include more fruits and vegetables.