Ask the Scientist: Winter 2014

Why don’t Americans follow the government's recommendations and eat a healthier diet with more fruits and vegetables? —Suzanne Burke, Canton, MA

Jeffrey O'Hara, agricultural economist in the UCS Food and Environment Program, responds:

One major obstacle is that U.S. policies artificially inflate the price of fruits and vegetables. These policies have their origin in the 1930s, when the government would offer loans to farmers raising “commodity” crops such as corn and wheat that could be stored and resold if farmers defaulted; perishable fruits and vegetables were ineligible.

While the government no longer stores crops, production subsidies for commodity crops are still in force, largely due to agribusiness lobbying. These programs not only pour money into commodity crops—a projected $140 billion over the next 10 years—they also restrict the ability of farmers to grow fruits and vegetables. As a result of these and other factors, prices for fresh produce have risen twice as much as overall food prices over the last 60 years.

Lack of access to healthy food is a problem, too. For example, the National School Lunch Program, which provides free and reduced-cost lunches to children, is an important source of fruits and vegetables for children from lower-income backgrounds. But agribusiness interests are attempting to weaken school lunch standards that encourage increased fruit and vegetable consumption, while supporting the continuation of large contracts with food service corporations that focus primarily on processed foods. This is a particular problem given that dietary preferences and patterns are often formed in childhood.

Taxpayers’ dollars should be spent on healthy food, not junk food. That’s why UCS is working to promote smart investments that can help farmers grow and sell more fruits and vegetables, and make this food more affordable and accessible to low-income families. When Congress renews the legislation funding school lunches next year, we will push to get more healthy food on kids’ trays. Learn more at www.ucsusa.org/food.


Government Recommendations and Subsidies Don’t Line Up

The federal government recommends that half our dietary intake come from fruits and vegetables, but most government agricultural subsidies go toward junk food ingredients. Learn how UCS is working to support healthy food production at www.ucsusa.org/food. Graphic adapted from US Department of Agriculture (left) and the office of Rep. Chellie Pingree (right).