Commentary

Veggies Are Finally Where It's @

You had to admire the marketing genius behind George Ball declaring 2011 "The Year of the Vegetable" in a Wall Street Journalopinion piece last month. Ball is, after all, chairman of W. Atlee Burpee Co., purveyors of fine seeds and plants. But the time is right; there's a feeling in the air. Daniel F. Akerson could declare it "The Year of the Internal Combustion Engine" until he was literally blue in the face and he would not get any traction.

Ball cites First Lady Michelle Obama's anti-obesity initiative, "Let's Move," as a promising start to what he hopes will be a larger movement "to imbue our children with the love of -- and consumption of -- the most beneficial food for growing bodies." It doesn't matter if those veggies are home grown or store bought, he writes, but he cites Atlee Burpee research that found that kids like eating what they grow with you in a backyard patch. "With gusto," no less.

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Then there are the new federal Dietary Guidelines, which were announced Jan. 31. They included a cheat sheet for consumers with a few concise directives. "Make half your plate fruits and vegetables" was one of them. That's a huge step. It easy to visualize, and harder to ignore than "eat a lot of green stuff." As Ball pointed out, people like to count the slice of lettuce or tomato they stick atop a whopping hamburger as a serving of veggies. (An even more prescriptive message like "limit your Whopper intake to a special occasion once a year" would be even more huge a step, some folks would tell you, but we won't go there today.)

At a health and nutrition showcase for editors in New York Wednesday evening, I became acquainted with an initiative called Produce for Kids. Its "Get Healthy, Give Hope" campaign, which runs from May to July, educates shoppers about healthy eating through promotional campaigns on its website and in more than 3,000 grocery store in 25 states nationwide. More than 65 fruit and vegetable growers sponsor the program, which was started in 2002 by John Shuman, whose Shuman Produce specializes in sweet onions.

The program has, for example, put together a display of recipe cards that feature "nutritionist prepared" meals like a Veggie Frittata (and Raspberry Plum Parfait for dessert) or a Peach Tomato Salsa that seem easy to make, kid-friendly and good-for-you at the same time.

Over the past eight years, the program's suppliers and retail partners have also donated more than $3.1 million to the Children's Miracle Network, a nonprofit that funds children's hospitals nationwide. Shuman got the idea for bringing the produce industry together to raise funds for the hospitals, while spreading the "eat better" message to children and the people who feed them, after his own young son was hospitalized for a short time in a hospital that's in the network. We could use more win-win-win programs like this.

There is, of course, the hurdle of kid's palates, which seem to lean more toward the stuff that's not as good for them. This didn't just start with the McDonald's French Fries or Juicy Juice either. I'm thinking of the famous Thurber cartoon where mom says "It's broccoli, dear" and the suburban urchin at the dinner table replies, "I say it's spinach, and I say the hell with it."

But recent research among elementary school children found that the more they ate veggies they didn't like, the more their palates adjusted. "Other research has suggested the approach may work in adults, too, because -- just like kids do -- adults tend to experience food neophobia -- a dislike for the taste of foods that are new," according to an article about the study on the RealAge site. "Once those new foods become familiar through repeated exposure, they often start tasting good instead of bad."

Nutritionist Connie Evens, writing on the Produce for Kids site, offers other tips for parents of picky eaters, including the advice that you should never assume what a child will or will not eat. "Give her the opportunity to decide whether she will sample a food that she previously declared 'yucky.' Tastes change as children mature."

I'll tell you what: Tastes change as matures mature, too. I find myself loving food like cauliflower that I wouldn't go near as a kid. Granted, my fresh cauliflower soup (email me for the recipe) bears little resemblance to the rectangle of freezer-burned sinew my mom would dump into a Farberware pot and hold out as the only thing standing between me and another slice of roast beef. But that's the point. With the proliferation of fresh, local produce at farmers markets and all sorts of novel and enticing ways to dress up all manner of other veggies from around the world, there's no excuse for not eating them. Lima beans excluded.

But if someone could do for lima beans what Mann Packing has done for broccoli and Chinese kale -- that is, naturally combine them into a life form called Broccolini that's more delectable than either vegetable is on its own -- even the Thurber kid would eat his greens. Mann had a booth next to Produce for Kids at the editor's showcase the other night. I took home a package of Broccolini, sautéed it with some pressed garlic, pepper and a pinch of salt, put the lid on the pan for five minutes, poured on a little fresh Meyer lemon juice and voila! Why, I've worked myself into an urge for it now and it's 7:09 in the morning.

My point: I was that Thurber kid. Consumer tastes can, and do change and the smartest marketers know how to help make that happen.

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