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Rural residents eat fewer fruits and veggies

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California grows more produce than any other state, yet few of its residents – especially those in rural areas – eat the recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables, according to research released Wednesday by the Essentia Institute of Rural Health.

In fact, California is among 37 states whose rural residents eat less produce than their city-dwelling counterparts, in spite of living closer to where food is grown, researchers found. The primary reasons? Access and cost.

"You don't just pick an apple off a tree and put it in a basket, and it's automatically available for sale and consumption," said Nawal Lutfiyya, author of the report and a senior research scientist at the institute, based in Minnesota. Oftentimes, she said, "those fruits and vegetables are already targeted for larger venues."

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Rural communities typically have fewer outlets selling fresh produce, Lutfiyya said. Those that do often are small markets or convenience stores, where prices tend to be higher than they would be at grocery stores and supermarkets.

"Because of the higher cost, people are less likely to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables when they are available," she said. "This is a health disparity in many ways."

People whose annual household income was less than $35,000 were less likely than people making more money to consume the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables per day; nationwide, a higher proportion of rural residents – 43.6 percent – had annual household incomes less than $35,000, compared with urban residents (35.1 percent).

About 1 in 4 California adults living in urban areas ate the recommended amount of produce. But just 22.9 percent of adults in the state's rural communities met this benchmark. Nationwide, about 23 percent of urban adults and about 20 percent of rural adults ate their fill of fruits and vegetables.

More than 2.8 million Californians live in rural areas – defined as metropolitan statistical areas with no city center or outside metropolitan statistical areas. Nearly 1 in 4 households in rural areas have annual incomes less than $35,000, according to census data.

Geography was not the only characteristic of people who consumed more fruits and vegetables, researchers found.

In general, researchers found that people who ate their recommended servings of fruits and vegetables were more likely to be: women, non-white, married or living with a partner, better educated, engaged in at least moderate physical activity, and living without children.

Among households with at least one child, 38.8 percent of rural residents and 42.7 percent of urban residents ate the recommended amount of produce – a finding that came as a surprise, Lutfiyya said.

There could be multiple reasons that households with children consume fewer fruits and vegetables, she said, but money and convenience could play a role.

"If you have two working parents or if you're a single parent, either male or female, working, and you're trying to feed your kids at the end of the day … it's much easier to open processed, packaged food than it is to chop vegetables," she said. "Those are just facts of life."

The findings [PDF], based on an analysis of data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2009 Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance System survey, show room for improvement among all populations, Lutfiyya said.

Eating produce "isn't just something that fills your belly," she said. "This is something that also can improve your health or is part of the preventive health regimen people should be thinking of."

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