A nonprofit group has released a report citing the need for more government support of programs to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables in American diets.

The 2010 Gap Analysis, issued Monday by the Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH), concludes that while federal officials have repeatedly highlighted the importance of consuming more fruits and vegetables, public spending priorities and purchasing initiatives remain far below what is required to close the gap between how many fruits and vegetables people eat and how many they need.

The gap is wide.  The average U.S. resident eats only 42.5 percent of the recommended amount of fruit per day, and 56.9 percent of the recommended vegetables.  To reach the suggested servings, Americans would have to eat 135 percent more fruits and 75 percent more vegetables than they do now.

In order to close the gap, the report recommends that the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services increase that proportion of their budgets spent on the promotion and production of fruits and vegetables so that it matches the proportion of fruits and vegetables in the recommended American diet.

The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans call for nine servings of fruits and vegetables per day, or the equivalent of 41 percent of one’s daily food servings.  Meat now takes the lion’s share of USDA’s food spending priorities, weighing in at 43.6 percent of its budget, while spending on fruits and veggies gets only 19.8 percent.

If the USDA were to allocate $4.6 billion more, the equivalent of four percent of its budget, to programs that increase fruit and vegetable consumption, that spending would be aligned with the food group’s 41 percent share of a healthy diet, the report suggests.

Research has shown that inadequate consumption of fruits and vegetables can increase the incidence of cancer, strokes, and coronary heart disease.  According to the Gap Analysis, the extent to which people fall short of their target servings of fruits and vegetables accounts for $56 billion in economic costs related to these three diet-related diseases each year.

“With 56 billion dollars a year in healthcare costs specifically due to the fruit and vegetable gap, the funding we’re suggesting would provide a 12-fold return on investment,”  explained Dr. Elizabeth Pivonka, president and CEO of Produce for Better Health Foundation.

In other words, spending $4.6 billion more to promote and increase fruit and vegetable consumption would save $56 billion in public health costs in the long run.

In a phone interview, Allen Rosenfeld, author of the Gap Analysis, said, “We hope that, in this era of rising concerns about the budget deficit and smart spending, public policy makers will see this as a real opportunity to make smart decisions about allocating funds.”

The report points to a specific vehicle for providing these funds: the upcoming revised Farm Bill, which will determine how the majority of federal funding for food and agriculture is allocated.

That could be as simple as boosting spending on programs already in existence, the report suggests. For example, the report authors say spending on nutrition education is woefully low, constituting only one percent of the funds for nutrition assistance. If funding were provided to educate more beneficiaries of the SNAP program (formerly known as the food stamp program), fruit and vegetable consumption could rise significantly.

Rosenfeld said, “In order to do it right, you have to make the investment.

Other programs Rosenfeld cites as high priorities for government funds include:

— School meal programs

— Agricultural subsidies (which would increase the production of  fruits and vegetables and make them more affordable to consumers)

— Research on policies that would create incentives for consumers to buy more fruits and vegetables

— Research on the causes of the consumption gap

Programs to promote healthy eating in America have existed since the poor nutrition of soldiers’ diets received national attention during World War II.  Since that time, Pivonka said, the agricultural policy focus on fruits and vegetables has lagged far behind the attention given to other food groups. She hopes that, by paying attention to this report, the government will be able to make up for its past neglect of this food group.