The other day, I was stopped behind a school bus unloading a group of grade-school kids and was struck by how fat many of them were. Thinking back to my early school days, I can remember only one overweight classmate. The rest of us were all lean and relatively athletic - both boys and girls. Watching these modern-day 8-10 year-olds waddle slowly along, I can certainly understand why childhood diabetes and other obesity-related ailments are on the rise in America. I felt sad for them.
Of course, the fact that they were on a bus instead of walking a few blocks to school has to be part of it - but besides lack of exercise, diet is also a major contributor to our increasingly porcine population. Without a doubt, eating more fruits, nuts, and vegetables and less high-calorie, additive-laden packaged foods, snacks, and sugar drinks would help.
But my next thought was about the relative taste appeal of the items to be found in the produce section of most supermarkets. With few exceptions, the offerings taste just terrible. Asparagus - often sour; pretty red apples - like biting into mealy cardboard; melons - picked too early before sugars are formed; zucchini - bitter; beans - often limp and bitter; grapes - sad imitations of fresh ones; carrots - uniform non-sweet varieties that harvest easiest ... and there is no need to even discuss tomatoes. I can understand why kids would not be thrilled with such fare - I often have a hard time eating supermarket produce myself and I normally love those food items.
Even pricey "heirloom" tomatoes that have appeared on our local market shelves have problems. I tried a Pineapple tomato the other day and nearly spit it out (at $4.99 per lb.). It didn't taste like any Pineapple that I've ever grown.
In general, I find that some of the items in the expanding organic sections do have better flavors, and apple varieties such as Fuji and Honeycrisps are kid-pleasers. Bananas seem to holding up flavor-wise, and fresh red seedless grapes can appeal to young taste buds. I recently tried an organic 2% milk product for the first time and was surprised at the superior flavor.
Of course, part of the problem is also that we now have lost the seasonality of produce. Instead of having wonderful fresh peaches in July and August, we also have insipid peaches available the other ten months. Summertime tomatoes are now grown in hot houses year round. Some items are being shipped up from South America, while others have been in cold storage for months. Would it perhaps be better to offer only fresh delicious produce in their respective seasons?
Yes, there are exceptions. You can still luck into a decent melon, I've occasionally found crisp delicious grapes and tasty artichokes, and some other choices are OK if not high-flavored - it's sort of a guessing game in the store. But for the sake of our young folks, finding ways to give them good-tasting alternatives to junk food seems like a worthwhile thing to do. The trick is finding good-tasting, as flavor is way down the list of importance for breeding and growing store produce. Appearance, yields, uniformity, shipping and storage qualities, and shelf life all rank higher - for some legitimate reasons.
There's no getting around the fact that organic produce and milk cost more, or that stores want to stock "pretty" produce that won't spoil very quickly - but it seems to me that we're turning a whole generation of young people off of fruits and veggies because they often don't taste good. I recommend shopping the produce section with flavor as the key deciding factor, not appearance. And if the asparagus or beans are bitter after you cook them, complain about it. Otherwise, the produce manager will think everyone apparently loves their stuff.
(For those of you who are fellow tomato hobbyists, my eight varieties of main-crop tomatoes are now about 6 inches tall under grow lights in the attic. It will be time to transplant them into the garden in about two weeks here. I am now enjoying cherry tomatoes - Sweetheart of the Patio - growing in a hanging basket that I started in October. Sorry much of the country. I know you're having to shovel.)
Good growing, my friends,