Your mother was right — you should eat your vegetables…and your fruits. It has been proven, several times over, that eating lots of fruits and vegetables can help protect against chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, as well as ward off obesity. Yet, consumption has increased only slightly in the 11 years after the 5 A Day for Better Health program began urging Americans to eat more produce.

The latest numbers suggest that just 23 percent of Americans eat at least five fruits and vegetables daily, the minimum recommended. When Americans do eat vegetables, they're most likely to be starchy white potatoes and nutritionally weak iceberg lettuce.

But the federal government is out to change your habits, starting with revitalizing the public-private 5 A Day program. And it's targeting the places where Americans decide between fruit or french fries: school cafeterias, federal nutrition programs, restaurants and office vending machines, as well as supermarkets.

As the 5 A Day program is resurrected, behind-the-scenes changes have beefed up the original alliance between the National Cancer Institute and the industry-funded Produce for Better Health Foundation. In the past two years, they've added new partners to boost outreach efforts, and they've drawn up plans that could affect everything from the content of school lunches to whether shoppers put iceberg lettuce or more nutritionally powerful romaine in their shopping carts.

But those who work with the program admit it'll be tough to alter eating habits. “There are so many things that need to happen for people to eat more fruits and vegetables,” says Lorelei DiSogra, director of the National 5 A Day for Better Health Program for the National Cancer Institute. “Part of it is making fruits and vegetables more available in federal feeding programs. Part of it is education. Part of it is making sure they're available everywhere.”

One of the most potentially powerful tools in this endeavor is the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA has doubled contributions — now $50 million — to a program making it easier for schools to buy fresh fruits and vegetables locally. The USDA also is involved in tests that started this fall of salad bars in Florida schools, and the agency is working to put free fruit and vegetables into 106 schools in the Midwest and New Mexico.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks to increasing consumption is one that policy changes can't eradicate: taste. The assertive and sometimes bitter flavors of the most nutritious vegetables make it more difficult persuading some consumers, especially children, to eat them, concluded a 2001 evaluation of the 5 A Day program.

Others believe vegetables and fruit take too long to prepare, saying they don't know how to cook them, or they think they're too expensive. But, with 350 kinds of produce available in the average supermarket, everyone should be able to find something they like.

And, as if you needed another reason to eat your fruits and vegetables, here's one more — you'll be helping hundreds of Southeastern farmers, maybe even yourself.

In their search for profitable alternatives to traditional row crops, many farmers have discovered that their peanut — and cotton — weary soils will produce a pretty good tomato, watermelon, onion or carrot. For that reason, we've devoted the bulk of this issue of Southeast Farm Press to topics relating to fresh vegetable and fruit production.

We've invited several experts from the University of Georgia to contribute to this special issue, writing on topics ranging from methyl bromide alternatives to emerging disease problems. It's well known that Florida is a leading producer of fresh market vegetables, but you might not know that Georgia is the fourth leading producer of fresh vegetables in the United States. The vegetable industry in Georgia is worth almost $600 million, which in 2000 was more than the worth of cotton.

This special issue is by no means an indication that we're placing less emphasis on traditional row crops such as cotton, peanuts, corn, soybeans, wheat and tobacco. It's simply a response to the ever-evolving crop mix that makes the Southeast such a unique region for farming.