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Fresh produce battles fast food for America’s stomachs

(Photo: Dennis L. Taylor/The Californian)

Putting fresh fruits and vegetables in front of school children during lunch is a fight – not with the kids, rather with the makers of the other stuff on their plates.

“We’re fighting pizzas and French fries – those guys don’t want to get tossed off a lucrative place at the table,” said Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, on Wednesday during the Greater Vision 2014: The Business of Healthy Eating forum at California State University, Monterey Bay.

The forum looked at the challenges and opportunities of public health joining forces with agriculture. One of the challenges is getting Congress to put healthier choices on the plates of school children. But with the lobbying power of fast food, as well as the canned and frozen food industries, getting fresh fruits and vegetables on kids plates is an uphill battle, a number of the experts at the forum said.

Both Farr and Lorelei DiSogra, vice president for nutrition and health at United Fresh Produce Association, said there are ongoing attempts to strip out portions of legislation such as the National School Lunch Program or the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program launched in 2002

“I’m glad we did it in (2002) because today Congress is too dysfunctional,” DiSogra said.

DiSogra noted that many children in some parts of the country she visits have never tasted a fresh pear, for example. To them, pears are something that comes in a can covered in syrup, she said. But things are getting better. In California, there are 869 schools with salad bars – 42 of them in Monterey County. Most of the salad bars are the result of donations by agribusiness and agricultural foundations in the Salinas Valley.

Dr. Edward Moreno, the Monterey County Health Officer and director of public health, said that in addition to eating more fresh fruits and veg, exercise has to be added to the equation.
“As long as our caloric intake remains high, and we are burning less calories than we are taking in, obesity will persist,” Moreno said. “We need to change the fast food culture. If not, we will be facing premature death.”

One way to get the message out about healthy eating is through social media, which most – if not all – major agribusinesses in the Salinas Valley are using to market the health, flavor and versatility of fruits and vegetables, said Gina Nucci, director of Healthy Culinary Innovation for Mann Packing Co.

“There’s an increase in the use of social media,” Nucci said. “We can’t compete with the marketing budgets of Coke of McDonald’s.”

Nucci provided some data on what U.S. schools spend on various types of foods annually :
• Bananas: $41,543,000
• Salads: $114,805,442
• Pizza: $458,807,268

Any questions on why we are facing an obesity epidemic in this country?

“We can pay for healthy foods now or we can pay for healthcare down the road,” Nucci said.

We, as a society, are paying for our food choices in many other ways as well. For example, Nucci and Farr noted that 75 percent of young men and women trying to join the military are now turned down because they are too fat.

“Fast food has taken over America and the way we process our food,” Farr told the CSUMB students in the audience. “How do we change American culture? The opportunity is there for you.”

Dennis L. Taylor covers agriculture and health for Follow him on Twitter

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