Last week we discussed the low percentage of U.S. farm land allocated for growing fruits and vegetables, and how that could contribute to a higher price point for those products. Today, we'll touch on the impact consumers have on the market for fruits and vegetables.
Typically, when demand for a product or service is lower than supply, the price will fall. But, what happens when low demand seems to be a driver of a shrinking supply? In the case of specialty agricultural crops, like fruits and vegetables, we end up with an equilibrium price that is higher than that of other products.
American consumption of fruit and veggies is well below what is recommended by the federal government. In the case of MyPlate (USDA), the guideline stipulates that you should make "half your plate fruits and vegetables" and the Centers For Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) the recommendation is to eat 1-2 cups of fruit plus 2-3 cups vegetables daily. If you're curious about what the CDC recommendation looks like in "real food" terms, check out this piece by The Kitchn which shows exactly how simple it can be to meet this requirement.
Unfortunately, the average American isn't getting anywhere close. In fact, just 10% of American adults met the CDC recommendation in 2018, down significantly from almost 30% in 20101. This trending down is especially apparent amongst adults 45 years and older, and is even more acute for those over the age of 652. One speculated reason for this decline is the reliance on convenience food items (like pizza, packaged pastas, or other one-dish meals) that eschew the traditional "center cut with vegetable side" meal template2.
In short, we've changed the way we eat. A recent Harvard Business Review report shares that just 10% of us self-identity as people who love to cook3. Preparing fresh produce (especially vegetables) requires a fairly significant investment of time, knowledge, and skill - peeling, chopping, cooking, etc. When you consider those two facts - that most Americans don't love cooking and that preparing vegetables takes work - it's unsurprising that many of us are opting out. When this information is then coupled with the preponderance of convenience foods available, its hard to feel shocked that the average adult in the U.S. eats just 1 serving of vegetables per day2.
This lack of consumer engagement provides disincentives for farmers who may otherwise be interested in growing these crops, which may help explain why such a small percentage of farm land is used for growing fruit and vegetables. Using an economic model developed at Purdue, one study estimated that if consumption increased to the point where Americans met the federal guidelines, farmers would increase growth of these products by 88%4. It's a classic catch-22: if people ate more fruit and vegetables, they could potentially be produced at a lower cost, thus encouraging people to eat more fruits and vegetables.
At the same time, produce is the most commonly wasted farm product we have. This occurs at all levels of the food supply chain. Farmers regularly leave produce unharvested in the field, there are many reasons for this but one that is commonly cited is the expectation by consumers of a "perfect" product. If produce is not symmetrical, blemish-free, bright, right-sized, and otherwise beautiful it is left in the field, kept out of the market, or not selected by consumers. The cost of producing this product doesn't go away, however. Farmers, knowing that they will ultimately "over-plant" each season must price their remaining product accordingly (read: more expensively).
Farmers' market and other direct-to-consumer shoppers already eat a greater quantity and variety of fresh produce than the average American5, but even we can do better. When it comes to food, we have a real opportunity to vote with our dollars. By choosing to invest in high-quality fresh produce, we can tell farmers that we want more of these foods. By looking past blemishes, weird shapes, or other so-called "imperfections" we can help circumvent some of the waste that drives up their cost.
Getting your "Five a Day" is not that hard, and more than half of all Oregonians aren't even doing that.
We can, and should, do better.