Tom Karst, National Editor
Tom Karst, National Editor

There is a sure way for moms and dads to get their kids more fresh fruits and vegetables.

The answer: don’t have anything else in the house. No cookies, no chips, no pop and no ice cream sandwiches. Absolutely nothing.

Sound extreme?

Of course, but drastic times call for drastic measures.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture report from 2009 titled “Younger Consumers Exhibit Less Demand for Fresh Vegetables” revealed that “people born more recently are found to spend less money for fresh vegetables than older Americans do.”

And unless something happens to alter how the young people make food choices, the report warns, those kids of today will likely eat less fresh vegetables in their later years than today’s older generations currently do.

The typical household, the authors said, could spend about 10% less for fresh vegetables for home consumption in 2020 than it did in 2000, after adjusting for inflation.

Why is this so? It is probably because young folks don’t know how cook with fresh vegetables, they eat out a ton and they eat the wrong things at home.

How can this troubling trend be reversed?

Excluding bad options is the approach taken by the USDA to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables by kids at school. Take away all other tempting options and leave students with only healthy options of fruits and vegetables. Take away the barbecue chips, take away the Butterfinger bar, take away the M&Ms.

The kids will eat more produce, over time.

Although some districts complain that kids are shunning the supersized fruits and vegetables in school meals and abandoning the lunch program altogether, one wonders if those school districts have been diligent enough about moving toward more healthy options for kids.

One produce wholesaler who is a big provider of fresh produce to school districts in Western U.S. states told me that the idea that kids can’t get enough calories from school lunches is bogus. With many kids enjoying salad bars at schools, he said that kids can go back to the salad bar as often as they want.

If they are hungry enough, they will go back and eat more produce.

Provide only good options and there is no way to make a wrong choice.

This principle of exclusion of bad choices — making “no provision for the flesh” in Biblical parlance — makes choosing the right path somewhat easier than it would otherwise be.

This is true in my own life. For example, if there is a package of Oreos in the cupboard, that will tend to be the “go to” snack item for any particular time I am in close proximity.

If the Oreos are gone, I might check the cupboard for a box of Cheezits or Wheat Thins. If the salty snacks are not to be found, I may finally cast a furtive glance at the fruit bowl, ultimately drawn to that gala apple or banana. Gee, why didn’t I think of the apple first? I know better!

A recent USDA study, called “Fruit and Vegetable Consumption by School Lunch Participants,” looked at schools that offered increased levels of fruits and vegetables to students eating school lunches.

The lead researcher found that while some students increased their consumption of fruits and vegetables, others did not eat any of the offered fruits and vegetables.

The author suggested additional methods should be considered to help kids meet nutritional goals, including changes to the food environment, increased availability of healthy foods and education about good nutrition in classrooms.

“Changing the food environment” is code for hiding the Oreos and filling the fruit basket.

There may be kids (and grown men) somewhere in the world who choose the apple or baby peeled carrot over the chocolate chip cookie or Nutter Butters, but their number is few.

Produce marketers should consider marketing to the aspiration of parents who buy only fresh and healthy snacks for their kids. In a nod to Bolthouse’s marketing genius, why not suggest “Carrots — Eat ‘Em Like Junk Food.”

Admittedly, this type of “go to market” strategy may not sync up with the notions of retailers. After all, their food environment is sometimes about maximizing sales of chocolate frosted doughnuts.

But the produce industry and government feeding programs should stress the high aim for moms and dads to buy only healthy snacks for kids. Sure, consumers will fail — but set the goal high for them.

Beyond the bright lights of the supermarkets, industry marketers will have to work to get fresh produce on the menu of many more restaurants. That is where the young consumer is spending his food dollar on quarter pounders and the Oreo milkshakes.

Excluding bad options at foodservice may be impossible, but populating the menu board with fresh produce items should be a consuming passion as the industry battles for the stomachs of America’s youngsters.

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