eat vegPhoto: John C. AbellEarlier this week, I asked the question: How many farmers markets is too many? On a related note, this new study [PDF] looked at Americans’ fruit and vegetable consumption — one of the main variables driving farmers market sales.

How close do we come to eating the recommended five servings a day? Not very. Only about one-quarter of Americans manage it. And if you’re one of those who do, chances are you’re a well-educated, middle-aged, married woman of color without kids, who gets a moderate amount of exercise. This is great — but sadly there just aren’t enough of you!

The researchers from Minnesota’s Essentia Institute of Rural Health also found an interesting urban/rural split. It turns out that in most states, rural residents are less likely to eat the recommended number of servings of fruit and vegetables — despite living right next to the very farm fields where they’re being grown. In fact, there seems to be a direct negative correlation between a state’s agricultural production and its rural residents’ fruit and vegetable consumption. According to the study:

Of the 11 states where a higher proportion of rural adults consumed at least five daily servings of fruits and vegetables when compared to the non-rural adult population, only one state, Hawaii, was [also] ranked in the top 10 states for fruit and vegetable production.

As California Watch noted, it’s deeply problematic that this pattern is evident even in the nation’s top fruit and vegetable producing state — California — where slightly fewer rural residents eat their veggies than their urban counterparts. That said, it turns out that only around 25 percent of urban Californians eat all five servings a day.

Of course, California’s Central Valley is notorious for diet-related health problems, largely because residents lack access to affordable healthy food and/or the time it takes to prepare it. But the problem is by no means limited to the Golden State. Researchers also found that compared to their urban counterparts, rural residents generally were:

Caucasian, older (> 65 years of age), heavier (BMI > 30), less educated, poorer (household income < $35,000), married or living with a partner, and without health insurance. Further, a higher proportion of rural vs. non-rural adults: did not have children living at home, had not had a routine medical check-up in the past 12 months, and self-defined their health as fair to poor rather than good to excellent.

These results suggest some of the challenges to improving health and diet among rural residents.

The bad news in this report rather makes this recent Fresno Bee article on the popularity of CSAs ring a bit hollow. CSA use may be on the rise there, but it’s likely just capturing dollars spent by those well-educated, middle-aged married women without kids who get moderate amounts of exercise, and who are shifting their spending from supermarkets. Indeed, a former farmers market employee confided to me recently that farmers who serve one major California city report that sales are basically flat despite the explosion of new farmers markets there — which suggests that the increase in markets represent an increase in convenience for those already eating their veggies, and not necessarily an increase in consumption overall.

Of course, it’s not as if we’re really prepared for a swift increase in Americans’ fruit and vegetable consumption. As USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan recently observed, such an increase would primarily benefit foreign farmers, since American farmers would be hard-pressed to meet additional demand.

What this all means, I think, is that we need more farmers and more markets — not necessarily farmers markets — in places that don’t have them. But most of all, we need more income, more education, and more time.