Much attention has been given to how to increase fruit and vegetable consumption. It’s not a new problem but a recurring issue, despite the efforts of many.
Considered a matter of national urgency, the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health was held in September to create a framework for ending hunger and reducing diet-related diseases by 2030. Part of the program is the issuance of “produce prescriptions.”
Before the event, IFPA released its moonshot nutrition recommendations, an eight-point plan to make fresh produce a critical part of U.S. nutrition policy. Mollie Van Lieu, vice president of nutrition and health at International Fresh Produce Association BB #:378962 in Newark, DE, believes one of the recommendations—produce prescriptions—has the strongest potential to move the needle in the short term.
“To participate, you have to have a health risk and also some indication of food insecurity,” she explains. “Half the U.S. population has prediabetes and diabetes alone, and there’s a big chunk of people who are food insecure. If we can address this with quality fresh produce through Medicaid, it will make a big impact.”
Pilot programs with the Veterans Health Administration and the Indian Health Service, the two healthcare systems the government controls, will likely start in 2023. There are also a few local produce prescription programs in place in North Carolina, California, Oregon, and Massachusetts, which allow Medicaid to reimburse for produce prescriptions.
In June, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture announced an additional $40 million in USDA American Rescue Plan Act funds to support the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP) Produce Prescription Program, with $17.5 million to fund applications from fiscal 2021, which were on hold due to budget constraints.
Van Lieu believes the USDA program will be useful in collecting data to inform decision-making.
“Peer-reviewed science shows this is a smart investment,” comments Brent Ling, director of external affairs for Wholesome Wave in Washington, DC, a pioneer in produce prescriptions and the host organization of the National Produce Prescription Collaborative.
It has developed 10 policy suggestions to advance its mission of promoting produce prescriptions as a standard practice of care.
While interest in produce prescriptions has grown since the start of the pandemic, Ling believes there’s more to it. “Increasing healthcare costs and market inefficiencies are behind the growing interest as much as the pandemic,” he says.
If produce prescriptions become standard practice in government-sponsored plans like Medicare and Medicaid and employer-based insurance plans, Ling points out, it will require changing IRS codes and billing infrastructure.
He cites progress being made on how to process the transactions for fruits and vegetables. “For example, if $8 of your $30 basket is apples, we can now charge a separate account for those apples. This is an emerging field we’ve been deeply invested in over recent years.”
He says produce distributors will be a vital component to success, adding that many suppliers developed an infrastructure for delivering specialty produce boxes during the pandemic, which will be valuable as they partner with hospitals or health plans to get fruits and vegetables into the hands of those who need them.
Another way to increase produce consumption with more near-term impact is by enhancing SNAP program benefits, which had more than 40 million participants. In the pilot program, consumers who spend $5 on fruit and vegetables get a $5 voucher, and data shows participants did indeed eat more fresh produce than the average American.
Its success is rather simple. “If you give individuals purchasing power, they’ll consume more fresh fruits and vegetables,” Van Lieu says. “But it’s not available widely. We suggested a standalone benefit for fruits and vegetables—but it’s a challenge because it’s clunky to do at the retail level.”
Another change expanding access is the increase to the WIC (women, infants, and children) monthly benefit for fruits and vegetables, which increased from $9 to $24 for kids and from $11 to $48 for women in the last year.
“While we expect that to remain permanent, it doesn’t represent a huge portion of people. Half of babies qualify, but usually families don’t stay enrolled after the babies stop using formula,” notes Van Lieu. But with the higher fruit and vegetable benefit, she says, “We see an 11-percent increase in kids staying in the program, so more purchasing is already happening. Also, anecdotally we’ve seen that when the benefit rises, they’re buying more variety, including value-added and fresh-cut vegetables.”
Other recommendations include expanding the USDA’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) to all low-income elementary schools. “We think the administration and USDA can find funding in the upcoming farm bill push to expand that in the next school year,” Van Lieu says. “It’s really one of the only programs that is focused just on fruit and vegetables, and it’s really popular, so we’re in the right place to expand.”
Lori Taylor, founder and CEO of The Produce Moms BB #:366223 in Indianapolis, IN, and Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, former CEO of the Produce for Better Health Foundation (now merged into IFPA), agree, as does pretty much everyone in the industry.
Taylor applauds programs revolving around nutrition and access, but says, “It can’t end there—if those two things were the only catalysts, we’d be there. We need to look at how to make fruits and vegetables something consumers want to eat and not something they have to eat.”
“Any program that promotes consumption of fruits and vegetables is viable, especially since consumption is so lackluster,” adds Reinhardt Kapsak, but she agrees with Taylor that driving consumption requires a more coordinated effort.
Beyond government and industry programs, consumer marketing messages can play an important role in motivating consumers to eat more fruits and vegetables.
Taylor notes that Produce Moms is spending more time in 2023 on the social-emotional part of driving consumption. “There’s a heightened level of stress in our lives—how can we use fruits and vegetables to make people feel better about themselves? How can fruits and vegetables be a solution in our lives?”
“Campaigns that seek to generate or establish an emotional connection with consumers are particularly interesting,” concurs Reinhardt Kapsak. “There are so many emotions to tap into other than future health.”
This is an excerpt from the cover story in the January/February 2023 issue of Produce Blueprints Magazine. Click here to read the whole issue. https://apps.bluebookservices.com/BBOS/LearningCenter/BP/January%202023/eBook/index.html