One thing I learned while in Washington, D.C., for last month’s USDA Outlook Forum: The U.S. government is heavily invested in the business of influencing what Americans eat.
With that investment comes significant responsibility.
I didn’t learn that amidst all the numbers and projections tossed around at the forum. I learned it over a dish of crab cake and coleslaw at Jose Andres’ America Eats restaurant, just around the corner from the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover building.
America Eats opened last Fourth of July for a yearlong run as a benefit supporting the National Archives’ “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” exhibit, an in-depth look at the role the federal government has played in farming and the eating habits of the American people from horse-and-plow days to today.
According to the exhibit, the government has had a hand in the production, regulation, research and economics of food for more than 100 years.
It has variously told Americans to grow their own fresh fruits and vegetables or support farmers, to eat carp or cottage cheese, to go meatless on Mondays or have beef for dinner.
It’s tweaked official nutritional guidelines many times — during World War II, butter had its own category, fruits and vegetables were split up into three groups, and Americans were urged to “in addition to the basic seven ... eat any other foods you want.”
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?
What does this neglect of a fresh produce outlook say about attitudes within the agency toward certain commodities?
Yes, the USDA and OCE have to make choices. But so do the American people. The agency has been urging consumers to be responsible and eat their fruits and vegetables.
Americans seem to be listening. Meat and poultry per capita consumption has fallen to about 200 pounds, while consumption of fruits and vegetables has grown to 269 pounds and 417 pounds, respectively, according to the USDA.
However, the USDA also has to be responsible. Its ability to influence others must begin within, with an attitude that grants fresh produce just as much importance as meat and grains — an importance in line with its consumption figures.
The USDA should walk the walk by adding a produce outlook session to its forum and bringing produce industry participants into the general conversation about commodities and projections and what Americans — and the rest of the world — are buying, selling and eating.
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