Dear USDA: Eat your fruits and vegetables

03/16/2012 08:43:00 AM
Tara Schupner

Federally set school lunch guidelines and military rations have influenced dietary habits for several generations. 

The USDA’s recent MyPlate effort is no different. It demotes carbs and sets the ideal plate as composed of 50% fruits and vegetables. And it talks up the nutritional value of a diet with a foundation in fresh produce.

However, the USDA is missing a valuable opportunity to back up its talk by “walking the walk” when it comes to fresh produce. 

As I sat through session after session at the Outlook Forum, I was struck by the relative paucity of produce-related data. The forum has outlook sessions for livestock and poultry, dairy, grains and oilseeds, sugar, and farm income, but none specifically for fresh produce. 

Furthermore, the USDA’s 96-page agricultural projections book, distributed at the forum, contains numerous graphs charting exports, imports and prices of those outlook categories — meat and grains and oilseeds in particular. 

“Horticulural crops” garner just one page of analysis, one graph and two pages of charts. 

When I asked Brenda Chapin, spokeswoman for the USDA’s Office of the Chief Economist, which puts on the forum, about the lack of a produce outlook session, she said it isn’t an oversight. 

“We do not provide an outlook on produce because space and time are limited, and we have to make choices,” she said.

The Office of the Chief Economist, however, does try to incorporate produce in some way, whether through produce-oriented plenary speakers or a luncheon speaker, she said.

She also pointed out that the produce industry has access to ample data produced and posted online by the Agricultural Research Service, Economic Research Service and National Agricultural Statistics Service. 

Granted, there was a produce-related session tacked onto the end of the forum, about the growth of food hubs as a tool for local farmers. 

However, I had just spent two days watching numerous attendees take the mic at each commodity outlook session to ask panelists — many of them USDA’s own economists — questions and provide feedback about the data and how it was calculated. 

I sat there and thought: Where is the opportunity for produce growers to step up to the mic and ask USDA’s economists these questions? Where is the opportunity for them to engage in dialogue with economists and each other about key factors that influence horticultural projections for the next year and decade? 


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