New guidelines urge diet of more fruits and vegetables

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The U.S. government is advising Americans to drastically reduce their salt intake and consume fewer calories. Federal officials also suggest people eat more “nutrient-dense” foods: fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

The Agriculture and Health and Human Services departments, which issue dietary guidelines every five years, released their new recommendations this morning.

The guidelines, hard for many Americans to follow, can be even more difficult for low-income families who have limited resources or live in areas where fresh produce isn’t easy to find.

“People can’t eat it if it’s not available,” says Mary Story, a dietician at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health. “Even if it’s available, if it’s priced so high, people aren’t going to buy it.”

Story says the nation needs to take a look at the food available in low-income communities.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack conceded as much in today’s announcement. Speaking with reporters, Vilsack said the Obama administration is experimenting with ways to provide low-income families with more options.

“We’re really aggressively addressing the issue of food deserts,” he said, referring to areas that lack a traditional grocery store.

Vilsack also cited an experiment in Massachusetts, where people using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits long known as food stamps receive a discount on fruits and vegetables. Federal officials are watching to see whether the program changes which foods people buy.

But Vilsack insists that the foods the government is recommending are not always more expensive. Beans, for example, are a good source of protein – and Vilsack says there are affordable ways to buy fruits and vegetables. The U.S.D.A. website offers suggestions for stretching food dollars, to help families follow today’s new recommendations with limited resources.

Julie Siple reports on hunger and related issues for Minnesota Public Radio News. MPR is a partner in the Hunger-Free Minnesota project, which helps fund her reporting.

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