The cost of satisfying fruit, veggie recommendations

March 9, 2016

Most Americans do not consume enough fruits and vegetables to meet recommendations in the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. One reason may be that some consumers perceive these foods to be expensive. However, a new report released by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (USDA ERS) shows that most Americans should be able to afford to eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, as long as they cut back on foods high in fat and added sugars.

Using 2013 retail scanner data from Information Resources Inc. (IRI), the researchers estimated the average price at retail stores of a pound and an edible cup-equivalent (or for juices, a pint and an edible cup-equivalent) of 156 commonly consumed fresh and processed fruits and vegetables. They determined that in 2013, a consumer on a 2,000-calorie diet could satisfy federal fruit and vegetable recommendations for $2.10–$2.60 per day. That’s equivalent to about 40% of an average U.S. household’s food budget. Currently, Americans spend only 26% of their food budgets on fruits and vegetables, and among lower-income households, it’s just 12%–13%.

Nine of 63 fruits (14%) analyzed cost less than $0.40 per cup-equivalent, including watermelon, bananas, and frozen concentrated apple juice. On a diet of 2,000 calories a day, the federal guidelines recommend a person consume 2 cup-equivalents of fruit daily. In addition, 17% of the vegetables analyzed fell under the $0.40 threshold, including potatoes, dried pinto beans, and dried lentils. The guidelines suggest 2.5 cup-equivalents of vegetables daily.

Another 41% of the fruits and 60% of the vegetables cost between $0.40 and $0.80 per cup-equivalent. Foods like fresh raspberries, frozen artichokes, and fresh asparagus were on the higher end of the price range, exceeding $2 per cup-equivalent.

The researchers concluded that a family of four could purchase a sufficient variety of fruits and vegetables to meet those same guidelines with a limited budget, based on the USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan (TFP). However, this would require the household to allocate a much larger share of its overall food budget to fruits and vegetables and a smaller share to foods high in solid fats, added sugars, and sodium.

Previous studies have identified potential strategies for increasing fruit and vegetable consumption, including price subsidies for low-income Americans, opening new retail outlets that offer fruits and vegetables in underserved communities, and encouraging restaurants to modify or reformulate menu items. However, based on the findings of this study, the researchers concluded that it might also be helpful to encourage consumers to make room in their food budgets for fruits and vegetables by spending less money on products high in solid fats, added sugars, and sodium.

ERS report (pdf)