The Most-Eaten Vegetable in the U.S. Is the Potato

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In 2012, kids across the country might have seen a change in their school lunches: Goodbye pizza sticks, hello "oven-baked fish nuggets." So much for tater tots ... you'll now be munching on "grape tomatoes, raw."

Two years earlier, Congress passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which contained new standards for healthier school lunches that had been trumpeted by First Lady Michelle Obama and her “Let’s Move” campaign. Among other things, the law mandated more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, along with cuts to calories and sodium.

The results are in, and suffice it to say, we are not breeding a nation of future Alice Waterses.

The School Nutrition Association (SNA), the school food vendors' lobby, has complained that student participation in the school lunch program has plummeted across the country. The group says that almost half of school meal programs reported declines in revenue in the 2012-13 school year, and 90 percent said food costs were up.

A recent study of Los Angeles school kids found that among students who took a fruit or vegetable from the lunch line, 22 percent threw away the fruit, and 31 percent tossed the vegetables without eating a single bite.

The House of Representatives is debating a bill that would grant schools a waiver from the healthier standards, which are otherwise set to become even more strict in July.

"Our members simply want relief from some of the onerous regulations slated to take effect this summer, which will lead to fewer students receiving healthy school meals, more food being thrown away and many school meal programs in financial straits," the SNA writes.

There are a number of forces that might be driving this food fight (sorry not sorry), including the possibility, raised by Politico, that the SNA is under pressure from its food-industry backers.

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But kids also have notoriously tough palates to please. Students in San Francisco aren't going eat like those in Pittsburgh:

"One-size-fits-all does not work well with school meals," one school chef in State College, Pennsylvania, told the Centre Daily Times. "California may be the vegetable basket of the nation, and students there have easier access and more exposure to fruits and vegetables, but we are a strict meat-and-potatoes area and the requirement to take a fruit and/or vegetable does not go over well here."

It takes eight to 10 exposures for kids to learn to like new foods. And there's evidence that most American youths aren't already chomping on cauliflower and kiwi at home. 

A recent USDA report found that while school lunches might be getting fresher and more sophisticated, American tastes are still as quotidian as ever.

Far and away our most popular vegetable is the potato, followed by the tomato. This is driven, the USDA writes, by our high consumption of pizza and french fries. To be fair, the USDA measured consumption by the pound, and potatoes are heavier than kale and lettuce. But fresh corn doesn't make an appearance either, and neither do the relatively weighty broccoli and carrots. 


Most Commonly Consumed Vegetables in 2012

USDA

Apples and bananas are still the most common fruits if you only consider fresh fruits. But the USDA also counts "juice" as a fruit, even though fruit juice is about as healthy as Coke. In any case, we drink way more oranges than we eat.


Most Commonly Consumed Fruits

Credit

And overall, we don't eat enough fruit, vegetables, or dairy to meet the "MyPlate" recommendations—the government's new version of the food pyramid.


Average U.S. Consumption Compared to Recommendations

USDA

Surprisingly, our nation's most popular cheese is not cheddar, but mozzarella. We can thank pizza for that one, as well.


Share of U.S. Cheese Availability Per Capita

USDA

With diets like these, it could be that one reason kids are dumping the new, healthier meals is that they aren't accustomed to eating that way at home.

Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.


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