Millions of children are reminded every year to eat their broccoli. Why? It’s good for us. But there are serious consequences if we don’t eat our vegetables: staying away from produce is taking a big monetary toll—in the trillions of dollars.
The Union of Concerned Scientists released a report last week that quantified the costs of not eating fruits and vegetables. If Americans added just one portion, or a half-cup, of fruits and vegetables a day, the UCS calculated that externalized savings would top more than $2.7 trillion.
If that figure sounds insane, think about it this way: Researchers looked at the relationship between healthy eating and cardiovascular disease (CVD), which includes conditions like high blood pressure, heart diseases, and stroke. In 2010, the medical costs of CVD alone came to some $273 billion, and lost productivity due to CVD cost an estimated $172 billion. Meanwhile, meta-analyses have shown that each additional serving of fruits and vegetables accounts for a 5% decreased risk of stroke and 4% decreased risk of coronary heart disease.
"UCS estimates that a sustained one-serving average daily increase in fruit and vegetable consumption would have generated an annual $5 billion savings in 2010 medical expenditures," the researchers wrote. "If Americans increased their consumption to meet federal dietary guidelines, the savings would rise to $17 billion annually."
Today, the average American eats less than a cup of fruit a day along with 1.6 cups of vegetables, both 60% and 36% below the federal recommended amount. UCS estimates that increasing daily fruit and vegetable intake across the board by as little as half an apple or a handful of baby carrots could do more than save expenses—outside of medical expenditures, the UCS report calculates that the biggest savings would come from sustained lives.
Attaching value to "the amount that people are willing to pay for safety measures that reduce their likelihood of death," researchers estimated that reduced death from heart disease was equal to $5.5 trillion, and reduced mortality from stroke some $1 trillion. Applying that relationship to the risk-reduction effect of fruits and vegetables, UCS concluded that if Americans increased their daily servings of the stuff by one portion, we’d save $2.7 trillion. We would save a whopping $11.4 trillion if we actually ate fruits and vegetables according to federal dietary guidelines.
So how do we get there? Not everyone has access to fresh fruits and vegetables, let alone the choice to eat them. UCS recommends investing in research to help farmers grow more fruits and vegetables, connecting more farmers and local markets directly to underserved communities, and restructuring federal farm subsidies to encourage growth of more produce—which is no easy political feat. Still, UCS points out that modest-sized grants can go a long way, like the USDA’s Farmers Market Promotion program, which subsidizes farmers’ costs in establishing connections to those receiving food aid. The report also notes that developing apps to connect farmers and underserved consumers could be an untapped well of promise.