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Sticker shock in the produce aisle? Hardly

We know you feel your wallet getting tense when you head down the produce aisle.

Prices aren’t that bad.  Honest.

The average American can get a day’s worth of fruits and vegetables for as little as 64 cents, according to the Department of Agriculture.  At that price, the average household still has 88 percent of its daily food budget to spend on hamburgers, microwave burritos, diet soda or anything else that tempts their tastebuds. Low-income households still have 84 percent of their food budget left, according to USDA's analysis, released last week.

With a few exceptions, adjusted prices for staples like apples and tomatoes have barely kept up with inflation.

“It’s not a lot when you think what families did spend,” says agricultural economist Jane Reed of the USDA’s Economic Research Service.

The food pyramid, and its grain-heavy base, be damned: Nutritionists have for years been pushing the importance of getting your daily fruits and vegetables –- preferably fresh, but they’ll take what they can get.

But there's plenty of room for growth. The average American consumed 683 pounds of fruits and vegetables in 2002, the lowest level in a decade. Consumption is up just 18 percent since 1970, while flour and cereals were up by 41 percent. Cheese nearly tripled.

How much per serving?

Though most of us shop for produce by the pound, researchers wanted to compare costs by the serving. After all, per-pound prices don't help much given that fruits and veggies aren't all built the same. Far more of that corn cob ends up in the compost heap than does a bunch of spinach or a pint of blueberries.

"It's not just the cost per pound, it's how many servings you get in that pound," Reed says.

When considered by their serving costs, fresh vegetables averaged out at 12 cents and fresh fruits at 18 cents, according to the study, based on 1999 household data from A.C. Nielsen Homescan.

Americans could tuck into potatoes, broccoli or carrots for 10 cents a serving or less; cabbage cost just 4 cents.  Fancier options cost a bit more: asparagus weighed in at 70 cents per serving; shelled green peas topped out at 91 cents.

While five rather heavy contenders (by weight, that is) -– potatoes, cabbage, carrots, onions and sweet potatoes -– accounted for over 60 percent of veggies purchased, they also happen to be five of the least expensive per pound. 

Some advice for those who like things fresh: It's usually cheaper. Fresh peaches, blueberries, carrots and spinach were all cheaper than processed counterparts.

That wasn’t always the case. Frozen raspberries, grapefruit juice and canned green beans were cheaper than fresh. Sometimes, as with Brussels sprouts and pears, it made almost no difference. (Who here eats frozen Brussels sprouts?)

Getting your daily dose

What about a healthy, balanced diet?  Cabbage may be cheap, but several servings a day would be neither fun nor fully nutritious. Using three fruit servings and four vegetable servings a day, the researchers drew up some menus.

The cheapest, most basic mix of produce -– including apples, raisins and broccoli -- clocked in at 64 cents per day.  Adding slightly pricier items into the mix -– kiwi fruit, sweet corn, bananas -– hiked the cost closer to a dollar.

Consumers' cost confusion may stem in part from the mysterious measures for proper servings of produce. Try envisioning a half-cup of carrots while pushing your shopping cart.

"It's how much we put on our plate to eat versus a unit of measure," says Kathy Means of the Produce Marketing Association.

And you still have to cook the stuff. Convenience is a huge concern for Americans, but aside from fresh fruit and the occasional cherry tomato, most produce still requires time in the kitchen -- unless it’s sold as a ready product like baby-cut carrots or applesauce.

Ready-to-eat options hike the price.  Cut carrots often sell at three times the cost of their uncut cousins. Let’s not even talk about bagged salad greens.

"Even the stuff I buy in the produce aisle is more finished than it's ever been before," says Linda Gilbert, HealthFocus' president.

'That consumer doesn't exist'

Shoppers often feel price-squeezed, Gilbert says, because we're preparing less of our own food than ever, and less frequently price-shop for raw fruits and vegetables.

At the same time, global distribution provides U.S. supermarkets with fresh produce year-round. Fruit shipped halfway around the world, especially when priced to sell quickly, doesn't always taste as fresh. Yet we buy it.

"The idea of Mom going in and squezing the melon to pick the right one? That consumer doesn’t exist anymore," Gilbert says. "We don't know how to choose it. ... We don’t know how to prepare it. We don’t know how to cook it."

When quality suffers, some of us feel we've overpaid and stop buying. That might be why produce growers -- most of whom have seen steadily shrinking profit margins -- face a tough sell with price-paranoid consumers.

And it's not a problem just for those tough sells like Swiss chard or grapefruit ("What do I do with the other half?" asks Gilbert). Even items like nectarines and peaches, considered a treat even by the pickiest kids, face a tough sell. Americans now eat 9.8 pounds of those two fruit each year, down from 13 pounds in 1970.

"In the case of peaches and nectarines, it's even more perplexing because all you have to do is hold it in your hand and take a bite."