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Industry Viewpoint: Monitoring dietary guidance to increase consumption

By
Mollie Van Lieu, IFPA's vice president of nutrition and health

Coming off Cathy Burns’ State of the Industry address last month in Anaheim, CA, we all heard loud and clear the importance of taking action with policymakers. While there is a lot of noise within the federal government at the moment, many quieter regulatory and scientific efforts that impact the way Americans eat continue.

You may have heard of MyPlate (formally known as the Food Pyramid) — but do you know the backstory? Every five years, the United States Department of Agriculture and the United States Department of Health and Human Services lead efforts to update the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These set of recommendations impact consumer visuals like MyPlate but they also have a great deal of influence over institutional feeding programs like school meals and federal nutrition programs like WIC and SNAP.

In order to update the DGA, an expert committee comprised of nutrition scientists and researchers, known as the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, works closely with the aforementioned departments to review nutrition evidence and research and establish conclusion statements that inform a scientific report drafted by the DGAC. Based on this report, the departments draft and finalize the DGA, which becomes official guidance for the next five years. For fruits and vegetables in particular, the recommendations have not changed significantly over the last several decades.

Overall, American eating patterns do not closely align with the DGA. The Healthy Eating Index, which is a measure of diet quality based on the DGA from zero to 100, is currently at 58 for those ages 2 and older. Where this score is higher is in early years (under 2), throughout childhood and adolescence, and in older adulthood (over 60). While these statistics are troubling, one thing that the age groups that perform better have in common are federal nutrition assistance programs aimed specifically at these populations.

Federal nutrition assistance programs serve one in four Americans. Most must align with current DGA and are continuously being updated to meet this requirement. One of the most notable updates in recent times was the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, which made significant changes to the meal pattern requirements for meals served in schools.

As part of these updates, vegetable subgroups were established, which increased the quantity and variety of vegetables served in child nutrition programs and encourages innovative concepts like salad bars in schools — which was the motivation behind the industry’s early support of salad bar programs. Many may remember a time where the vegetables in school meals were most often mashed potatoes and canned corn. While these popular items remain, today you will find everything from jicama to Bell peppers to watermelon radish. The most recent DGA also led to USDA proposing a new added sugar limit for child nutrition programs which should, in part, drive schools to serve more naturally sweet fruit.

The WIC program is another federal nutrition assistance program that is based on updated dietary guidance from the DGA. Currently, the WIC food packages are undergoing an update that incorporates DGA recommendations and are meant to make permanent the quadrupling of the fruit and vegetable benefit. Only two years ago, women in the program were receiving $11 a month for fruits and vegetables. Today that figure averages $48 a month. The WIC program enables low-income mothers and children to access the necessary quantities of fruits and vegetables to meet dietary recommendations. Today, half of all babies born in the U.S. are eligible for WIC, but only about half of those eligible maintain the program after age 1. With the increase in the fruit and vegetable benefit, those rates are changing.

As the DGAC and the departments continue their work on the 2025-2030 DGA, it is imperative that our industry weigh in on the importance of fruits and vegetables in dietary guidance as it has far-reaching implications not only for federal nutrition assistance programs, but for eating patterns for the general American public as well. This update is unique in that the DGAC and departments are centering health equity and are exploring flexibilities in established eating patterns to align with cultural and traditional preferences. They also are examining eating strategies and food and nutrition insecurity in their review of the evidence given the impact of the DGA on federal nutrition assistance programs.

We look forward to continuing to engage during the DGA process with the DGAC and the departments to ensure fruits and vegetables continue to make up half of the plate. We also are committed to assisting with implementation of the guidelines, once they are finalized and released in 2025, to ensure that Americans can access the quantities and varieties of fruits and vegetables that are recommended whether it is through federal nutrition assistance programs or through weekly grocery shopping. To learn more about the ongoing work to update the DGA, you can visit www.dietaryguidelines.gov.

For questions or more on how to advocate for these programs in an even more meaningful way, contact me at [email protected].

For more inspiration on how to inspire consumers to make half their plate fruits and vegetables, visit www.fruitsandveggies.org.

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