Cost: A Barrier to Fruit and Vegetable Consumption?

February 1, 2011


I recently learned the benefits of using Google Reader to stay up on nutrition news.  I have various nutrition websites and blogs entered into the reader that I check daily for new stories.  Even I become overwhelmed with all the new information out there!

Today, one story caught my eye from  The title “How Much Do Fruits and Vegetables Cost?” was intriguing.  The Economic Research Service conducted a study on the actual cost of fruits and vegetables in 2008.  With the release of the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 and the push for us to consume more fruits and vegetables, this is a timely release of such a study.

The study included 153 different types of fruits and vegetables, all in various forms.  Fresh, canned, frozen, dried and 100% juice were all included.  Results indicated that an adult consuming a 2,000 calorie diet in 2008 could meet the requirement for fruit and vegetable intake with a total cost of $2.00 to $2.50 per day.  The requirement is measured in one cup equivalents of edible portions of fruits and vegetables and an average adult would need approximately 4.5 cup equivalents per day to meet the requirement.  A breakdown of the 153 different fruits and vegetable prices studied listed from highest to lowest cost is available in the complete report. ERS report Interestingly, the report states that processed fruits and vegetables were not consistently lower in cost than the fresh fruits and vegetables.  (Just the opposite of what I might have guessed.)

I used to hear from patients in the hospital where I worked prior to coming to Boston that fruits and vegetables are too expensive and that is why he/she would not eat them regularly.   I now hear the same statement of fruit and vegetable cost being an issue faced by the average American from fellow students and colleagues at Tufts University.  When I calculated the total cost of $2.00 to $2.50 per day for fruits and vegetables, it is approximately $14.00 to $17.50 per week, or between $730 and $912 per year.  Granted this is for one single adult, not a family of four.  If you make $50,000 per year, this is approximately one percent of your total income.  For an individual making $10,000 or less this cost is approximately nine percent or more of total income.  After making these calculations I began to wonder, is this too expensive?

According to a report from the USDA in 2008, the average amount of income spent on total food (fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, etc) per American, per year, was approximately nine percent.  Some reports state an average of up to 12 percent of total income, per American, per year was spent on food in 2008.  Typically, those with a lower income, spend a larger amount of their total wages on food, some up to 25 percent.

So, if this price is considered affordable, then why is it that we, as Americans, are deficient in our total fruit and vegetable consumption?  As it turns out, even a simple discussion about this topic with a fellow Friedman School student, Nicole Tichenor, can easily turn into an hour long conversation about why Americans do not eat enough fruits and vegetables.   Maybe there is more that goes into this problem of fruit and vegetable consumption than just price.  If only it were that easy.

A little background on Nicole.  She is an Agriculture, Food and Environment student at the Friedman School.  She is not your average American, she eats more fruits and vegetables than anyone I have ever seen.  Last winter she purchased a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and had a new box of vegetables to bring home every month.  She can create an amazing meal out of the most random combination of food!  Whenever I have something leftover such as a sweet potato or polenta, I go to her for suggestions on what to eat.  I decided to ask her thoughts on this report and this problem of poor fruit and vegetable consumption in the United States.  Nicole believes that there is much more to this problem than just price:

“The ERS was measuring the cheapest fruits and vegetables that people can eat, it is not that easy, they might not always want to choose the least expensive.  What about preparation and skill, there is so much more to it than price.  There is something wrong when a box of blueberries costs the same amount as a box of Oreos.  But, I think the taste factor is huge.  And taste and relative price of other products plays a big role in people’s decisions.”

It is true.  Taste, availability, perceived benefit and cost, all come into consideration when choosing to buy or pass up a product.  If you are looking for taste, you might prefer the canned green beans over the fresh, or even avoid the produce all together and go for the pound of inexpensive ground beef that is the same price as the bag of carrots.  What about preparation?  Some individuals lack the skills to prepare certain fruits and vegetables.   I cannot tell you how many times I have passed by a buttercup squash because I have no idea how to prepare it.  And what to do with the green leaves of the leeks I purchased was of much debate between my mother and me while home for the holidays.  Still others lack the availability in their community to purchase fruits and vegetables.  Some communities only have a corner store that provides bananas, apples and maybe some carrots or lettuce at best.

No matter the barrier, Americans are not consuming enough fruits and vegetables.  So is cost really the only deterrent?  After reading this report, I think that we have more on our plates to address in solving this problem than just price.


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One Comment on “Cost: A Barrier to Fruit and Vegetable Consumption?”

  1. David Says:

    Cost is a dual concern when it comes to buying fruits and vegetables. Due to the (comparatively) small percentage of land vowed toward fruit and vegetable production, the price is high, as much fruit and veggies have to be imported and thus high transport costs due to fossil fuel usage. The second part of cost is the comparison with the low-cost of potatoes, corn and other cheap starches that are domestically grown. Additionally, Americans are saturated with ads for all items EXCEPT fruits and veggies. Though we like to pretend our conscious ability to denounce such advertisement, we are unconsciously directed toward the cheaper, non-fruit consumables; a further point of this is the placement and organization of most large-chain supermarkets, which generally have fruit and veggies in the same area and off to the sides, where they can be avoided entirely.
    A final point. As always, a lack of education is a key point. Many see orange juice and eating an orange as being equivalents, which is absurd. Most people are disconnected and uneducated about food production, and being as such, they find buying processed goods not only cheaper, but superior, if not in nutrition, but in taste and convenience. Convenience ties in with lack of education: some people simply do not know what to do with certain fruits and veggies, thinking they require specific and time-consuming preparation to make such food edible.
    I have more, but I’m going to stop there for now.


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