Beyond Potatoes

As a family that works hard to eat seasonally, we tend to get pretty excited when summer vegetable season arrives. We can’t get enough leafy greens and things that crunch. Every spring, I am awed by the way that seasonal eating creates balance as we emerge from the days of root vegetables with tremendous appreciation and appetites for the fresh, crisp tastes and textures of summer. I am always amazed by the sheer number of vegetables that my family can go through in a week’s time - kids and grown ups alike. It’s anecdotal evidence, but in this house it seems seasonal eating increases our vegetable consumption by allowing us to fully appreciate the foods available during each fleeting season. People are often surprised to learn that our family has a full veggie share in addition to a large garden, and while we do give a lot of garden vegetables away to friends, family, and our local food pantry, we are also able to do a surprisingly good job of keeping up just through the meals and snacks that we eat.

 

I was thinking about this the other day when I stumbled upon an article that caught me by surprise. The article was looking at how the vegetable intake of Americans stacks up against the USDA’s recommendation of 2.5-3 vegetable servings per day.  Although I expected that many Americans may not be eating enough vegetables, I was surprised to learn that the vast majority - 87% of American adults - do not eat enough vegetables each day. On top of that startling statistic is the fact that almost 50% of the vegetables available in the United States are potatoes and tomatoes - most often consumed in the form of french fries, potato chips, ketchup, and pizza sauce. Not only are we not eating enough vegetables, we’re not eating enough of the right vegetables needed to help fight off cancer, heart disease, diabetes and myriad other ailments that vegetables help fight against.

 

The problem is further complicated by the fact that most vegetables, especially the ones we really need like leafy greens and orange peppers and variety in general,  aren’t subsidized by the government the same way that some crops, such as corn and potatoes, are. So prices for many of the good things we need are higher, which feeds into the fact that demand for these items are lower. It’s swiss chard competing against potato chips.

 

I very much recognize that the way my family eats is a privilege. It’s a privilege that we have access to a wonderful CSA and land for a garden. It’s a privilege that we can afford good food and gardening supplies and that we have time available to produce nourishing meals. It’s a privilege that my children are willing eaters who happily ask for “more greens please!” and not just at dinner, but often at breakfast and lunch too. And all of this privilege, while I’m immensely grateful, is a terribly sad reminder of all that is wrong with the food supply in our country, because I’m pretty sure the USDA guidelines were never meant to be a set of instructions for the privileged few.

 

These are some sobering thoughts. When you look at the math, and I’ll round down since many families have young children (the dietary guidelines don’t hit 3 cups per day until the teen years), using a desired portion of just two cups of vegetables per day means that a family of four needs to purchase, prepare, and consume a whopping 56 cups of vegetables per week. While our society may have a long way to go, I try to use this information as a guidepost to help inform my own behavior as a consumer. I remember when I first started buying my own food in college. Organics were just becoming a thing that the mainstream knew about. I did most of my shopping in the tiny health food store not far from campus, and paid exorbitant prices for my food. Venturing into the big box grocery stores with their low prices and large selections, organics were nowhere to be found. I remember the first time I saw organic tomato sauce on the shelf at Hannaford. It was some major brand, maybe Hunts or Ragu. I was ecstatic. I felt powerful. My buying choices felt like they mattered. And while I’m aware that there are issues with major brands taking on organics and the way the organics trend has played out with processed foods etc., in that moment, seeing that jar of organic tomato sauce on the shelf at Hannaford, all I saw was progress and the power of consumer voice.

 

I may be an idealist, but I still believe in that power. Our consumer dollars hold influence. When we use them to buy potato chips at the grocery store, we influence the market. When we take our dollars away from the grocery store and buy organic swiss chard from a local farmer, we influence the market. I also believe in our children’s ability to help change and shape the world. Studies show that offering children a variety of fruits and vegetables early on in life makes a difference. It is why I put certain things on my children’s plate over and over again even if I know they may not actually eat that item. Repeated exposure takes the weirdness out. Sauerkraut goes from “that funny smelling stuff” to “what we eat with most meals.” This practice is why my daughter said to me yesterday, “I don’t want cereal for breakfast. I want cabbage.”

 

The CSA is a beautiful thing because it creates the convergence of family and farm. My children love going to visit the farm and talking about all that goes into producing our food. Just as we consumers influence the market with our buying choices and the food we feed our families, farms like Brookford are bravely swimming upstream to protect our food supply and go up against potato chips to make sure we also have swiss chard to eat. Farming in this way doesn’t make anybody rich. Farming in this way is a sacrifice of time and money that helps to shape our country's food supply, helps to bring us back into balance. It is long days and expensive equipment and patience and planning and work that is never finished. When I think about food privilege, I think about the privilege of having a farm that is out there very literally sowing the seeds of the future to make sure that we consumers have access to more than just potatoes and tomatoes. We are incredibly indebted to the sacrifices of our farmers. Whether we see it or think about it, we are as influenced by the dedication and perseverance of our farmers as we are by things like clean air and safe drinking water.

 

If you haven’t been out to the farm before, consider making the trip. Brookford welcomes visitors to tour the farm and see all that is happening there. We are in this together, farmer and consumer. Our choices, large and small, converge to shape our world and the future for our children. The things we do matter. It’s time to get out there, and eat those veggies. All 21 cups that the USDA says you should be eating this week.