New Evidence of Growing Fruit & Vegetable Consumption Crisis — More Introductions of Produce Needed

New Evidence of Growing Fruit & Vegetable Consumption Crisis

By Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, MS, RDN, president and CEO of the Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH)

March 2021 – Despite decades of industry and public health efforts, America’s fruit and vegetable consumption continues to decline, according to newly released State of the Plate: America’s Fruit and Vegetable Consumption Trends research from the Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH).

Every five years, PBH conducts an in-depth analysis of fruit and vegetable consumption patterns in partnership with The NPD Group, which tracks how, when and where we eat fruits and vegetables. The research shows people are eating fruits and vegetables less frequently, down nearly 10% since 2004, when the PBH State of the Plate reporting began. The most significant contributor to this decline has been a 16% decrease in vegetable consumption frequency. In the past five years alone, overall consumption has declined by 3%, indicating the trend is worsening every year.

The PBH State of the Plate research report shows the vast majority of Americans do not meet recommended fruit and vegetable intake — with 80% under-consuming fruit and nearly 90% under-consuming vegetables. Most Americans currently eat fruits and vegetables on just one occasion or less each day — with the average adult consuming 1.6 cups of the recommended 2-4 cups of vegetables per day and only 0.9 cups of the recommended 1½-2½ cups/day of fruit.

Findings uncovered in this research demonstrate concerning trends, but also insights into opportunities to improve intake:

  • Vegetable intake has decreased in five out of eight age groups. Older adults (50+ years) are leading the way in declines, a particular concern as they typically eat the most vegetables.
  • Older Millennials are slacking, declining in fruit and vegetable eating occasions and trending higher than other age groups in not eating fruits.
  • Fruit consumption is down among kids. Older Millennials are in their peak parenting years, and their behaviors may be affecting their families. In fact, children 1-3 years old have shown a significant decline in fruit consumption. Intake is also down in children 4-8 years old, which is especially alarming because young children are typically among the highest fruit consumers.
  • Generation Z is a promising generation of vegetable lovers. Young Gen Z consumers ages 1-14 years are eating vegetables more frequently.
  • Already popular fruits have increased in eating occasions. While overall fruit intake remains low, people have turned more frequently to bananas, grapes, blueberries, strawberries and oranges in the past five years.
  • Handy, simple veggies are increasing in frequency. Although the total number of vegetable eating occasions has been declining the past 16 years, three age groups increased in eating occasions – 14-18 year-olds, 19-30 year-olds and 71+ year-olds — potatoes, salads, avocados, tomato sauce/paste and salsa have been increasing as go-to veggies over the past five years.
  • One-fourth of vegetables are consumed through dining out. With people working more from home and preparing more meals at home, this creates concern that veggie eating may continue to drop.

Overcoming Barriers

Consumers express the same top barriers in relation to eating fruits and vegetables, and in almost the exact percentages. Top barriers include finding new menu ideas (31% for both fruits and vegetables); staying within budget (30% for both fruits and vegetables); planning healthy meals (29% for vegetables and 30% for fruit); and finding meals quickly (26% for both fruits and vegetables).

Interestingly, those consuming higher amounts of fruits and vegetables tend to have greater desire and ability to plan. This is consistent with the 2017 PBH Novel Approaches to Measuring and Promoting Fruit and Vegetable Consumption research, which showed that those who consume more fruits and vegetables encounter the same barriers as those who consume less — yet they make consumption happen in spite of the barriers.

Going Forward

Based on the 2020 PBH State of the Plate research findings, and consistent with the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, it will be of the utmost importance for Gen Z and Millennials to start early to establish good fruit and vegetable habits and enjoyment in their children, within their families, and for themselves. It will also be critical to act immediately and decisively to preserve fruit and vegetable intake in older adults and guard against further attrition.

Ultimately, we need to start with understanding consumer behavior — including our own. The entire food system must reinforce fruit and vegetable consumption norms to collectively help create a next generation of fruit and vegetable super eaters. Public health as well as food and nutrition communicators must connect with consumers in meaningful ways — encouraging ease and enjoyment while also capitalizing on the interest in health and nutrition benefits among medium and heavy produce consumers and inspiring them to share the feel-good, motivating successes among their social circles.

Industry stakeholders must also unite to help enact multi-sector, food systems-based change. Consumer behavior trends reinforce the need for all sectors to collaborate and enable more enjoyable and more accessible experiences wherever and whenever people make food and beverage decisions, so eating fruits and vegetables becomes a crave-worthy and easy habit.

COVID has shone a light on a reality that the fruit and vegetable industry and other food system thought leaders have long known — that facilitating consumption of produce in all forms (fresh, frozen, canned, dried, and 100% juice) will be key in resolving the pervasive and worsening consumption crisis. The pandemic has disrupted all aspects of our lives, including all points of the food system supply chain, leaving many in search of what behavioral scientists call a “fresh start” moment. If a global pandemic does not change fruit and vegetable consumption behaviors, what will?

The Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH), a nonprofit 501(c)(3), is the only national organization dedicated to helping consumers live happier, healthier lives by eating more fruits and vegetables, including fresh, frozen, canned, dried and 100% juice, every single day. For more information, research, tips, tricks, recipes and fruit and veggie facts and inspiration, visit

More Introductions of Produce Needed

Once consumers have come to enjoy the produce item, the preparation, etc., they will be open to buying it at retail and, in some cases, to cooking it at home.

When you make your living producing and selling a product and consumption is declining, it feels like a crisis. It is important, though, to realize that consumers do not share the same feeling. Consumers are not starving; in fact, obesity is an enormous problem. The decline in consumption of fruits and vegetables is a manifestation of some kind of societal change. People change because they are happier with an alternative than with what they started out with.

In the case of produce, we see dramatic increases in consumption of items that best serve consumer needs. Take an item like the Clementine. This author was a teenager when a French importer of Florida grapefruit, who also was a big importer of Moroccan Clementines into France, helped my family business gain a contract to import Moroccan Clementines into the United States. At the time, the only imports were arriving in new Bedford, MA, and being shipped directly to Canada.  We were given an allocation of the shipment for sale in the United States.

Few Americans had ever seen a Clementine. They were packed in open wooden cartons that virtually guaranteed there would be theft at our base in the Hunts Point Market. Yet they were easy to peel, seedless and so delicious. We sold them all and had orders waiting for the next boat.

Today, of course, besides substantial imports, there is massive growing of Clementines in California and substantial marketing efforts by brands such as Cuties and Halos.

In the time of the pandemic, consumer recognition of an association between citrus and health — added to pre-existing perceptions of convenience and good taste — has led to increased demand.

So we know very well how to increase consumption of produce items:

1) Improved flavor; must be delicious.

2) Easy eating; an easy peeler is a great example.

3) Reputation for health enhancement, as in Vitamin-C-rich fruit in a pandemic time.

4) Easy to transport and display – throw a few Clementines in a lunch box for a child, keep a few handy at your desk if you get hungry, or put a bowl out while entertaining guests.

5) Year-round availability to encourage the habit of eating the item and encourage foodservice operators to add the item to their menus.

Note that these five points do not so much tell us how to sell more of the existing varieties of produce, as they tell us what kind of produce can be developed that will be easy to get consumers excited about.

That one fourth of vegetables are consumed while dining out might not be such a problem except that potatoes, lettuce, tomatoes and onions account for the overwhelming majority of that consumption.

We, of course, can’t know the future. It is entirely possible that post-pandemic, more people will work from home and, so, more people will make their own lunches. The problem with projecting the future is that every action causes a reaction. So, if people are stuck at home all day working, they may want to get out for dinner more often, or they may prioritize traveling for vacations where they will eat out three meals a day. Or maybe remote work will lead people to move and live in more rural areas where housing is cheaper — and by spending less on housing people will have more disposable income to go out for dinner more, vacation more, have lunches delivered.  Perhaps people will be stir crazy and meet up with friends and family more frequently, and restaurant meal occasions — breakfast, lunch and dinner — will actually increase.

Although marketing is always a way to move the needle on consumption, our sense is that the produce industry simply doesn’t have the resources to run the kind of mass consumer campaigns likely to boost consumption. What it could do, however, is run targeted efforts on the foodservice side, from culinary schools through distributers and onto operators.

Many years ago, we gave a speech with Dick Spezzano, then vice president of produce for Vons in Los Angeles, and he suggested that commodity groups looking to boost sales work to get their products included in the Sizzler salad bar — even if it meant giving the product away for free.  We need to work, restaurant chain by restaurant chain, to introduce more produce items to their menus. The focus should not be so much on finding ways to make money by selling more produce. The focus should be on using restaurants and restaurant chefs as a way to introduce consumers to produce items and innovative preparations.

Once consumers have come to enjoy the produce item, the preparation, etc., they will be open to buying it at retail and, in some cases, to cooking it at home.

One challenge: The Produce for Better Health Foundation, as currently organized, is there to promote not only fresh produce but produce in all formats. Note the reference in this piece to tomato sauce/paste. How should the fresh industry think about this? Is there evidence that children brought up to love spaghetti sauce come to love fresh tomatoes?  My family, typically heavy fresh consumers, in the pandemic situation, stocked up on jars of Dole and Del Monte mandarins so we would have plenty of fruit even if we didn’t want to go out to the supermarket, or failed to order a fresh delivery.

Do consumers who eat more frozen, canned or dried produce, eat more or less fresh produce. Seems like a worthy area to study when PBH next moves to understand consumer activity.     pb