(May 13) The government can and should do more to promote fruit and vegetable consumption.

The recently passed farm bill represents a virtual ATM for growers of program crops like corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice. Billions of government subsidies will be doled out, encouraging a cycle of increased production, low prices and then more subsidies.

Although the produce industry may in some future year decide it wants federal subsidies in the manner of those program crops, the vast majority of fruit and vegetable producers and marketers have resisted the urge to plead for direct government assistance. They can see well enough that crop subsidies soon lead to a disconnect from the market, as growers farm the program instead of farm for the market.

However, there is no doubt the produce industry wants more federal assistance in promoting and enabling the consumption of more fruits and vegetables. That is a goal that both the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture already agree the country needs.

The government’s tiny outlays for fruit and vegetable support, promotion and research were 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.

The simple facts are these: 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.

The time is now to begin closing the gap between the importance of fruits and vegetables and the government’s commitment to the future health of the U.S.

Higher funding levels for fruit and vegetable purchases for federal feeding programs and more aggressive consumer education on the benefits of eating produce will be a start.