Eat Your Veggies!

I love vegetables. In fact, I never met a vegetable I didn’t like (except ones that are poorly prepared), and veggies make up most of my diet. Alas, the same cannot be said for everyone.

See this story, by Kim Severson, for the NY Times: Told to Eat Its Vegetables, America Orders Fries

[Various] efforts, high and low, are aimed at the same thing: getting America to eat its vegetables.

Good luck. Despite two decades of public health initiatives, stricter government dietary guidelines, record growth of farmers’ markets and the ease of products like salad in a bag, Americans still aren’t eating enough vegetables.

This month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a comprehensive nationwide behavioral study of fruit and vegetable consumption. Only 26 percent of the nation’s adults eat vegetables three or more times a day, it concluded. (And no, that does not include French fries.)

A few quick comments, from an ethics point of view:

1) Interestingly, the word “parents” appears precisely zero times in the NYT story. I’m not generally an adherent of the ‘blame-the-parents for everything’ school of thought, but clearly there’s an element of parental responsibility, here. If kids grow up not eating vegetables, it has to have something to do with what their parents buy, prepare, and put in front of them.

2) Second, we should remember one of the primary principles of economics: people respond to incentives, and money is a key incentive. If you want people to eat vegetables, their price — relative to other options — needs to go down. Since it’s unreasonable to expect farmers voluntarily to cut prices, the need to make vegetables cheaper very likely means a shift in agricultural policy, and that’s a pretty tough sell, politically.

3) Finally, we ought to acknowledge that getting people to eat more veggies may simply be an un-winnable battle against the evolutionary settings of the human taste-buds. That’s not at all to say that habits can’t change. Clearly lots of people (like me) do have tastes that lend themselves to heavy consumption of vegetable. But people like junk food, and they may well be willing to pay the costs of eating them. They like things that are salty and fatty and deep-fried. Salty, fatty, deep-fried veggies fit the bill, of course, but more of those is not exactly what nutritionists are after. Anyone suggesting changes in public policy to encourage people to eat more veggies have to recognize that they’re acting paternalistically; the extent to which such paternalism is justified is a hard question.

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
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