Is The Force With Us

Some new numbers are out. A United States Department of Agriculture survey found that, on average, adult consumption of fruits and vegetables increased a half a serving a day from the 3.9 servings reported back in 1989-1991 to 4.4 servings a day in 1994. This reads like a dramatic increase in produce consumption and a sizeable step toward the year 2000 goal of average daily consumption of five servings of fruits and vegetables each day.

The temptation to trumpet achievement is great, and if you are a non-profit foundation dependent on raising money from the produce industry – as is the Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH), the co-sponsor of the 5 A Day program – it must be nearly irresistible. Still, a long-term perspective dictates the desirability of using information such as this survey to help educate the produce industry by raising the level of statistical literacy.

This study, unfortunately, doesn’t really tell us very much at all. First of all, it is a survey – not a record of what people actually ate during a given time. And the problem with surveys is that people lie. It is highly likely that people will lie when speaking to surveyors about eating habits. Why? To please the surveyors, to feel virtuous, to hide their shame at eating fatty foods – who knows? But we do know it happens.

When we look at this latest survey in context with other research, such as USDA “disappearance” numbers that look to measure how much produce actually is used – and which don’t show these kinds of dramatic consumption increases – we wind up with the likely conclusion that the survey results are mostly the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

Even if true, it is not clear from the released results how much impact, if any, 5 A Day is having on fruit and vegetable consumption. Anecdotal evidence points to a growth in vegetarianism or some quasi-vegetarianism eating plan such as allowing fish in the diet. (In fact, take a look at Lee Smith’s column on page 68 for some insight into this trend and the opportunity/challenge it holds for produce retailers.) To some extent a youth movement and a movement of the upper classes, the vegetarian movement is likely having a significant effect on produce consumption.

Of course, 5 A Day doesn’t preach vegetarianism, so a high consumption minority, motivated by everything from ethical concerns over the use of animals to health concerns far beyond what 5 A Day is addressing, may serve to increase average consumption while the vast majority of people eat as they always did or even eat less healthy than before.

Fortunately, I’m hopeful that the PBH is on a course toward significantly enhancing its operations. From its birth as a national organization, PBH has been searching for the right kind of leadership. Elizabeth Pivonka, recently named president of the foundation, strikes me as making all the right moves.

Elizabeth is sort of the Princess Leia of the insurgency, fighting to increase health by increasing produce consumption. Deeply rooted in the operation, she has been around in one capacity or another since the very start. With a Ph.D. in food and nutrition science, she has a high level of education, intelligence, and credibility. She’ll need all these attributes and more to get the job done right.

Job one is to recognize PBH internally so that it is well prepared to handle the task at hand. Over the years, the board of directors has grown unreasonably large. A small foundation with revenues significantly less than that of 90 percent of the companies subscribing to this magazine has a board of directors significantly larger than that of General Motors! Even more, it is a board composed almost completely of produce people without the requisite experience and talent at non-profit operations, fund-raising, program execution, etc.

Ultimately, the foundation needs a small board, with no more than 10 people, probably half from the produce industry half with other types of expertise and background. Then, it needs a council of produce industry supporters through which a much larger number of produce industry members can express support and be educated on the happenings regarding the 5 A Day program.

Improving the functions of the board and raising the non-produce skill level of the board is essential because job two is raising money from non-produce sources. It is unlikely that many organizations will feel comfortable contributing to an organization who’s Board of Directors does not reflect a broader range of competency. Certainly, outside contributors will want to see produce industry support, so getting and keeping those big consumer produce names as supporters are important, but, above all, outside contributors will want assurance their money will be well spent, and that requires a different board make-up.

Non-produce industry funding of 5 A Day is crucial for a lot of reasons. The slim margins most produce companies work on simply limits the range of contributions. In addition, increases in consumption, in general, cannot be assumed to reverberate to the benefit of any shipper, in particular. Besides, the real purpose of 5 A Day is to help Americans eat better and thus be healthier, which means it is a public health program that, legitimately, has a claim to resources far beyond the produce industry.

So where do we get the money the program so desperately needs?

My suggestion? Target McDonalds, Burger King, KFC or anyone who sells fatty food to the public. It may sound incongruous, but it makes perfect sense. For decades, one of the largest sources of contributions for women’s groups has been Playboy. And why not? Who had more to gain by supporting women than a magazine often accused of exploiting women? Equally, there is no organization more likely to perceive a benefit in allying itself with increased produce consumption than a purveyor often accused of promoting non-healthy eating habits.

They say politics makes strange bedfellows. Well, so does fund-raising for non-profit foundations. After all, Princess Leia did consort with some pretty unusual characters to get the tools to do her job. Elizabeth Pivonka may have to do the same. Let us just hope that the force is with her.