Sunday, March 30, 2014

Fruit! Eat As Much As You Can (Afford)

For many families, easier said than done.
One of the most basic things I do for my kids as a parent is provide them with fresh fruit. As much as they want, every day.

We all know that fruit is great for health. The message has been drilled into our minds by posters in doctor offices and schools, ads in magazine and on television. The links between eating more fruit and avoiding a whole host of health problems is well established. Fruit is high in fiber, provides many nutrients, and is low in fat and calories. Filling up on fruit means being less likely to fill up on junk. The FDA says it. The American Cancer Society says it. The American Pediatric Association says it.

Simple: eat more fruit. But is it?

I decided to write this post because I'm starting to notice the financial consequences of encouraging my kids to eat as much fruit as they desire. I only have two children, and they are only 2 and 4 years old. And yet I find myself spending nearly a third of our grocery budget on just fruit. I try buying the fruit on sale, but it spoils more quickly and often tastes past its prime. Luckily, my family can afford to make cuts in other areas of our budget to make room for all that fruit.

My eldest is enrolled in a state subsidized preschool program which offers free breakfast, lunch, and snack. After seeing the menu, and because we can afford to, I turned down the free food. The main reason? Fruit. Regulations require a certain number of servings of fruit. But they also allow the fruit to come in the form of fruit juice from concentrate, sweetened applesauce, and sweetened fruit cups. Since the price of fresh fruit is so much higher than for these processed, sugar-added alternatives, guess what gets served for more than half of the requirements? I wanted to do better for my kids.

But shouldn't we as a society want to do better for all kids?

The FDA recommends 1.5 daily servings of fruit for kids, and 2 for adults. Half a cup is generally one serving. One serving is one small apple or banana, an eighth of a cantaloupe, or a couple handfuls of grapes. It's not a lot of calories, maybe 30-100 per serving, depending on the fruit. Considering that kids need anywhere from 100-1800 calories per day, fruit should account for about 20% of our caloric intake. The average price of one serving of fresh fruit costs 28 cents. To achieve the minimum number of servings a day for everyone, a family of 4 would spend about $14 a week on fruit (That's assuming that everyone actually eats their share and nothing goes bad. Those of us with young kids know why that's funny.) According to the US Department of Agriculture, families of 4 are spending between $147 and $289 per week on groceries. If those families spend $14/week on fruit, then fruit accounts for about 10% of their bill. So that works out, if a family of 4 can afford at least $147 per week (over $7,000 per year.)

For a family of 4 straddling the poverty line, $7,000 per year is about a third of their gross income. Which explains why so many Americans are on SNAP benefits (food stamps) and why school breakfast and lunch assistance programs are so common.

Looking at the numbers and the failure of government-subsidized programs to provide 5 servings of fresh fruit to school children, I consider the 1 in 5 American children living in poverty, and I wonder how often those 21% of American children even see a fresh piece of fruit.

A poster at my daughter's preschool.
*Take a step back*

This is a small issue compared to many others impacting poor children. Beyond just fruit, millions of American children are food insecure.  Insufficient early childhood care and education take a huge toll. So does violence, as 60% of kids are exposed to violence or crime in their homes, schools, or communities.

This blog post isn't actually about advocating for the inclusion of more fresh fruit in government food assistance programs. I wish America were at the point where that sort of advocacy could be a reasonable priority.

This post is really about putting things in perspective. Middle and upper class American parents like me are worried about making sure our kids are offered a wide range of fresh fruit on their plates, daily, while children who might live just miles or even blocks from us are skipping whole meals.

And while the majority of households receiving government food assistance include children, conservative media demonizes them as freeloaders, and politicians are yet again cutting already insufficient SNAP funds.

As a society, can't we do better than this? Or will we who are lucky remain content and complacent, so long as we can serve up a bowl of fresh blueberries for breakfast to our own kids?

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