WASHINGTON -- While Americans are eating more bananas and fresh citrus in the 1990s, they are apparently eating fewer vegetables, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture research.
This raises doubts that the produce industry will accomplish its goal of doubling fresh produce consumption by the year 2000, said John Love, an agricultural economist with the USDA.
Love said that average per-person consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables was 288 pounds in 1994, a figure that has remained flat since 1988. However, during the 1980s, consumption increased nearly 2% per year on average.
He said certain commodities, including citrus and green peppers, are apparently being consumed in higher rates than in previous years. However, that is not true of produce in general. "You can point out some exceptions but, overall, it's flat," he said. "It's not on the same trend it was in the 1980s."
Love is basing his analysis on statistics charting production, import and export trends. He said he takes into account the acreage of different crops under production, how that has changed over time and why it has changed. He said the numbers indicate that vegetable growers have been cutting back on acreage planted in reaction to flat consumption.
While "it's a very complicated picture," the net result is that per capita consumption is flat, Love said.
The analyst said he is not optimistic that consumers will be eating five servings of fruits and vegetables every day by the year 2000, which is the stated goal of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, a movement supported by much of the industry.
The national 5-a-Day campaign was launched in 1990 with the goal of doubling produce consumption in 10 years. To hit that mark, per person consumption would have to increase 7% each year, Love said; but consumption had been increasing 1% or 2% during a "good year" in the 1980s, and those gains have not been repeated so far in this decade.
Elizabeth Pivonka, deputy executive director of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, Newark, Del., agreed that the consumption of fruits is on the rise overall, and that it is the vegetable category that is stagnating.
Love said consumption may have slowed in the last five or six years due to a weakening economy. He agreed that poor supplies and higher prices of vegetables, due to bad weather in California and Florida, could also be a determinant.
But Love also suggested that consumers may be tiring of the message that produce is so good for you that you should be eating five servings daily.
On the other hand, a macro economic rebound could boost consumption, if only gradually, he suggested. He said produce consumption increased during the late 1980s when the domestic economy was strong.
Love also said the age distribution of U.S. consumers will skew older in time, which could help improve the consumption rate.
Pivonka agreed with his assessment about the economy, the aging population and value-added. She said improvements in the taste and quality of produce could also play a role in increasing consumption.
She said the foundation is working on projects to combat the current slump, such as a public service announcement for television. Pivonka said she is optimistic about the effect of the 5-a-Day message being promoted on television for the first time.
Still, the foundation lacks the budget for all the programs it would like to launch, she said. "We're always fighting for more funds."