The battle with vegetables

It’s been busy
recently for vegetables.

The baby-carrot
industry tried to reposition its product as junk food, starting a $25 million
advertising campaign whose defining characteristics include heavy metal music,
a phone app and a young man in a grocery cart dodging baby-carrot bullets fired
by a woman in tight jeans.

In Manhattan, crates
of heirloom vegetables with names like Lady Godiva squash were auctioned for
$1,000 each at Sotheby’s, where the wealthier are more accustomed to bidding on
Warhols and Picassos than turnips and tomatoes.

Both efforts, high
and low, are aimed at the same thing: getting America to eat its vegetables.

Good luck. Despite
two decades of public health initiatives, stricter government dietary
guidelines, record growth of farmers markets and the ease of products like
salad in a bag, Americans still aren’t eating enough vegetables.

In September, the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a comprehensive nationwide
behavioural study of fruit and vegetable consumption. Only 26 percent of U.S.
adults eat vegetables three or more times a day, it concluded. (And no, that
does not include french fries.)

These results fell
far short of health objectives set by the federal government a decade ago. The
amount of vegetables Americans eat is less than half of what public health
officials had hoped. Worse, it has barely budged since 2000.

“It is
disappointing,” said Dr. Jennifer Foltz, a paediatrician who helped compile the
report. She, like other public health officials dedicated to improving the U.S.
diet, concedes that perhaps simply telling people to eat more vegetables isn’t

“There is nothing you
can say that will get people to eat more veggies,” said Harry Balzer, the chief
industry analyst for the NPD Group, a market research company.

Recently, the company
released the 25th edition of its annual report, “Eating Patterns in America.”
The news there wasn’t good, either. For example, only 23 percent of meals
include a vegetable, Balzer said. (Again, fries don’t count, but lettuce on a
hamburger does.) The number of dinners prepared at home that included a salad
was 17 percent; in 1994, it was 22 percent.

At restaurants,
salads ordered as a main course at either lunch or dinner dropped by half since
1989, to a mere 5 percent, he said.

The nation has long had
a complicated relationship with vegetables. People know that vegetables can
improve health. But they’re a lot of work. In refrigerators all over the
country, produce often dies a slow, limp death because life becomes too busy.

“The moment you have
something fresh you have to schedule your life around using it,” Balzer said.

In the wrong hands,
vegetables can taste terrible. And compared with a lot of food at the
supermarket, they’re a relatively expensive way to fill a belly.

“Before we want
health, we want taste, we want convenience and we want low cost,” Balzer said.

Melissa MacBride, who
works for a pharmaceuticals company, would eat more vegetables if they weren’t,
in her words, “a pain.”

“An apple you can
just grab,” she said. “But what am I going to do, put a piece of kale in my

No one really wants
to admit that they don’t eat vegetables. A nurse who works at the Hospital for
Special Surgery in Manhattan openly acknowledges that vegetables make her gag.
Still, she begged to not be publicly identified because she is in the health
care field and knows that she should set a better example.

David Bernstein, who
lives in Brooklyn, New York, is sheepish about the lack of vegetables in his
diet. He waits tables at the hip M. Wells restaurant in Queens and knows his
way around the Union Square Greenmarket. But his diet consists largely of
bacon, yogurt and frozen stuffed chicken breasts.

“It’s just like any
other bad habit,” he said. “Part of it is just that vegetables are a little
intimidating. I’m not afraid of zucchinis, but I just don’t know how to cook

The food industry has
tried to make eating vegetables easier. Sales of convenience vegetables, like
packages of cut broccoli designed to go right into the microwave, are growing.
Washed, ready-to-eat bagged salads are a $3-billion-a-year business.

But that doesn’t
necessarily mean people are eating more vegetables. It just means they are
shifting their vegetable budget from one place to another, Balzer said. An
organic cucumber might replace a conventionally grown one. A bag of lettuce
replaces a head.

To be sure,
vegetables are making strides in certain circles. Women, as well as people who
are older and more educated and have higher incomes, tend to eat more
vegetables, said Foltz, the paediatrician who worked on the CDC report.

The vegetable,
especially when grown from heirloom seeds on small farms, is held in such high
esteem that knowing the farmer who grows the food is a form of valuable social
currency. Vegetables are becoming high art. At Sotheby’s recently, the
vegetable auction was part of a daylong event called “The Art of Farming,”
raising nearly $250,000 to help hunger organizations, immigrant farmers and
children without access to vegetables.

But vegetables are
also becoming important on the other end of the economic equation. An
increasing number of the nation’s 6,000 farmers markets allow shoppers to buy
produce with food stamps. Urban gardens are springing up in vacant lots and on
rooftops. Nearly every state now has programs that send fresh vegetables into
poorer neighbourhoods and school cafeterias.

The vegetable even
has the first lady, Michelle Obama, on its side. She planted an organic garden
on the White House lawn and talks up vegetables as part of her “Let’s Move”
campaign against childhood obesity.

The government keeps
trying, too, to get its message across. It now recommends 4 1/2 cups of fruits
and vegetables (that’s nine servings) for people who eat 2,000 calories a day.
Some public health advocates have argued that when the guidelines are updated
later this year, they should be made even clearer. One proposal is to make
Americans think about it visually, filling half the plate or bowl with

But clear guidance
probably isn’t enough. Health officials now concede that convincing a nation
that shuns vegetables means making vegetables more affordable and more

“We have to make the
healthy choice the easy choice,” Foltz said.

For another study
whose results were announced recently, researchers at the University of
California, Berkeley, spent three years examining the difference between
children who participated in the Berkeley Unified School District’s “edible
schoolyard” program, in which gardening and cooking are woven into the school
day, and children who didn’t.

The students who
gardened ate 1 1/2 servings more of vegetables a day than those who weren’t in
the program.

For students who
don’t have access to a school garden, perhaps the full-court press by the baby-carrot
producers will have some effect. The iPhone application, for example, is a
video game called Xtreme Xrunch Kart that starts when a player crunches a
carrot (or makes a crunchlike sound) into the phone’s microphone.

But as in past
attempts to revive the vegetable, none of this will necessarily be enough to
change a clear aversion to eating vegetables.

“Eating vegetables is
a lot less fun than eating flavour-blasted Doritos,” said Marcia Mogelonsly, a
senior analyst for Mintel, a global marketing firm.

“You will always have
to fight that.”