13 October 2010

Restaurants making access to fresh produce easier than ever before

The recent news that a mere 26% of the U.S. population consume vegetables three or more times daily doesn’t bode well for our overall health, and fruit consumption is only slightly higher at two servings daily for 33% of Americans. Remarkably, for every citizen to fulfill the USDA’s suggested daily fruit and vegetable requirement, farmers would actually have to cultivate an additional 13 million acres of crops each year.

Beyond these hard-to-fathom statistics, why exactly are we so resistant to incorporating naturally disease-fighting produce into our diets? Among the many reasons given, cost, convenience, lack of access and our cultural preference for highly palatable fast food tend to be at the top of the list. Unfortunately, by passing on plant-based foods in favor of highly processed alternatives, we’re setting ourselves up for significant health issues such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

If you think that it’s tough getting full grown adults to eat their veggies, imagine the challenges that parents face day in and day out when it comes to their children. Schools have it no better, which is one reason why they offer a rotating menu of less than nutritious yet child-pleasing fare, but the tide appears to be turning – not only through the implementation of gardening programs such as Michelle Obama’s childhood nutrition initiative but also through unique efforts such as the installation of baby carrot vending machines in select schools and high profile chefs like Jamie Oliver rallying on behalf of a revamped educational food system.

Despite knowing that fresh produce is essential for our well-being, our fast-paced lifestyles have made dining at fast food institutions a regular occurrence. You wouldn’t normally equate a healthy diet with indulging in a quick food fix, but a new study analyzing the feedback of 1000 mothers determined that gaining access to fresh fruit and vegetables at such establishments has improved in recent years (by 25% and 17%, respectively). In conventional restaurants, the figures are somewhat better (at 37% and 43%, respectively), suggesting that healthier options for families on the go are no longer the pipe dream that they once were.

Still, it’s important to note that restaurants generally offer just 8.8% of their menu items with fruit and 44.8% with vegetables, amounting to an overall total consumption rate of 11% or 72 cups of fresh produce per person annually. While not too shabby, we need to do far better. Fast food is inarguably convenient, but perhaps reacquainting ourselves with a ‘weekend warrior stove top cooking’ mentality would better enable us to consistently inject our diets with highly nutritious, diverse and far more affordable plant-based fare.

A few excellent sources for home cooking inspiration include Hungry Monster, YumYum, Super Cook and Punk Domestics -- and if your schedule is tight, it's well worth meeting up with friends for a monthly supper swap. Please feel free to share your ideas below on ways to incorporate more fresh produce into your family's diet (that don't involve ordering french fries and a side salad in the drive-through ;)

Elizah Leigh | @elizahleigh
A dedicated green journalist and currently commissioned to write a comprehensive reference book on vegetarianism, Elizah Leigh hopes to inspire people through her words. Follow Elizah on Facebook.

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/diekatrin