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Published May 17, 2010, 02:29 PM

Moving away from obesity

WASHINGTON — A report on fighting childhood obesity released by the White House May 12 could lead to government policies that would encourage a massive shift in acreage toward fruit and vegetable production and perhaps changes to the farm program that would encourage fruit and vegetable consumption and provide less support for traditional field crops such as corn and wheat.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — A report on fighting childhood obesity released by the White House May 12 could lead to government policies that would encourage a massive shift in acreage toward fruit and vegetable production and perhaps changes to the farm program that would encourage fruit and vegetable consumption and provide less support for traditional field crops such as corn and wheat.

The report, entitled “Solving the Problem of Childhood Obesity in a Generation,” says that neither children nor adults are eating fruits and vegetables at levels recommended by the 2005 Dietary Guidelines, and it calls for increasing children’s consumption of fruits and vegetables and increasing the availability of fruits and vegetables by 70 percent by 2020.

On average, children consumed only 64 percent of the recommended level of fruit and 46 percent of the recommended level of vegetables in 2003 to 2004, the report says. To achieve the task force’s goal of reducing childhood obesity from the present 20 percent of American children to 5 percent by 2030, the report calls for average fruit consumption to increase to 75 percent of the recommended level by 2015, 85 percent by 2020 and 100 percent by 2030. It says vegetable consumption should increase to 60 percent of recommended levels by 2015, 75 percent by 2020 and 100 percent by 2030.

Increased availability

To increase the availability of fruits and vegetables in the American food supply so that all Americans could comply with the dietary guidelines, the volume of fruits and vegetables in the country would have to increase by 70 percent or 450 pounds per person per year by 2020, the report says. In 2008, the American food supply included 643.6 pounds of fruit and vegetables per person — about 251 pounds of fruit and 393 pounds of vegetables.

If American diets are to be brought into alignment with recommendations in the 2005 Dietary Guidelines, consumption of fruit would have to increase by 132 percent and consumption of vegetables would have to increase by 31 percent, a USDA analysis shows. The increased supply of fruit and vegetables needed to support these consumption changes would total 1,096 pounds per person — an increase of 453 pounds, or over 70 percent.

The report does not address how much acreage would have to shift to increase fruit and vegetable production by 70 percent or whether consumers would be expected to rely on imports. According to USDA’ National Agricultural Statistics Service, 3.9 million acres of U.S. cropland are devoted to fruit, vegetable and nut production while about 326 million acres are planted to crops such as wheat, cotton, corn, soybeans, oilseeds and peanuts.

Subsidies

The report does not reach any conclusions about whether subsidies for crops such as corn, wheat and soybeans have an impact on the composition of the food supply, but says, “It is not disputed that the prices of some unhealthy foods have fallen, and that prices play a significant role in consumer choices.” The report calls for more research on the impact of traditional crop subsidies on the food supply.

It provides an array of methods for the government to subsidize consumption of fruits and vegetables through school meal and food distribution programs, but does not suggest direct subsidies to fruit and vegetable growers. These proposals are in line with the viewpoint of the fruit and vegetable industry, which has shown little interest in direct subsidies but has encouraged subsidies for low-income consumers and other supports such as conservation and export promotion.

The industry also has said that increasing production should not lower prices because fruit and vegetable margins are low and hand picking of fresh fruits and vegetables is expensive. The fruit, vegetable and nut industries won $1.3 billion in various programs in the 2008 farm bill.

President Obama commissioned the task force of administration officials to write the report in February the same day that Michelle Obama launched her “Let’s Move” campaign to fight obesity. In a ceremony releasing the report to reporters, Michelle Obama called the report a “very sold roadmap” and said, “As first lady I’m going to continue to do everything that I can to focus my energy to keep this issue at the forefront of the discussion in this society so that we ensure that our children can have the healthy lives and the bright futures that they deserve.”

Information: www.letsmove.gov

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