A Singular Passion for Fruits and Vegetables Drives Strategic Thinking

The US is in the midst of a fruit and vegetable consumption crisis. Ninety percent of us aren’t eating the recommended daily servings of vegetables, and eighty percent aren’t eating the recommended daily servings of fruits. To make matters worse, these percentages have actually declined over the past 30 years. What will it take to move the needle in the right direction?

For Mary Ann Ellsworth, MS, RDN, ASPHN past president, this issue has become a central mission. One she thinks about and prioritizes daily. During her recent tenure as ASPHN president, Mary Ann helped mobilize and deploy the Association’s board of directors, committees, councils and workgroups to prioritize the consumption crisis. Thanks to her resolve, ASPHN developed and published a Vegetable and Fruit Call to Action in the spring of 2022, which has become a priority issue for the Association.

With momentum on her side, we recently sat down with Mary Ann to discuss her passion and gain insight into her strategic thinking skills.

A Lifelong Love

For as long as she can remember, Mary Ann has loved fruits and vegetables. “One of my favorite things to do as a child was to help my mom cook family meals,” she recalls. “Helping wash, peel and cut veggies and fruit became my specialty.” As a nutrition student in college, Mary Ann instinctively gravitated toward the advancement of fruits and vegetables. “I felt that this was a positive behavior change that was free of controversy.” she adds.

Throughout her career in public health nutrition, her happiest times have been those where she was actively promoting fruit and vegetable consumption. Whether it was her time as New Jersey’s Fruit & Vegetable Coordinator or as manager of the state’s Fruit & Vegetable Coalition, she was doing what she loved.

Strategic Thinking Influences

Mary Ann views every opportunity as a learning opportunity, and she synthesizes the information she’s learned through a unique lens — that of advancing access, enjoyment and eating of fruits and vegetables. “It’s the way I’ve always thought,” she explains. Early in her career, she read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by the late Stephen R. Covey. The book has remained within arm’s reach ever since, and many of the traits she has honed over the years can trace a direct line back to its pages.

Take, for example, Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood. Mary Ann considers herself a better listener than speaker and credits those listening skills as one of the greatest keys to problem-solving. She’s a firm believer in taking time to process and internalize information, asking follow-up questions when needed. From there, her wheels immediately start turning to connect the dots and determine how this newfound knowledge can be applied to her advocacy work for fruit and vegetable intake.

For over 20 years, Mary Ann has been a member of ASPHN. She serves on the Collaboration Committee and has been a longstanding liaison to both the National Fruit & Vegetable Consumption Coalition and United Fresh, which recently merged with the Produce Marketing Association to form the International Fresh Produce Association. “By its very nature, working in partnership on national priorities is strategic,” says Mary Ann. And it just happens to be Habit 6: Synergize (Together Is Better).

A National Turning Point

Timing is everything. As luck would have it, Mary Ann’s tenure as ASPHN president followed on the heels of several national rallying cries. The USDA had just released its 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, stating that “most Americans do not follow a healthy dietary pattern.” And Produce for Better Health had published the 2020 State of the Plate, which spelled out the fruit and vegetable consumption crisis in stark detail.

Mary Ann knew she had to make every moment of her presidency count. She reached for The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People once again for inspiration, and Habit 1: Be Proactive (You’re In Charge) jumped off the page. She recognized that most of ASPHN’s initiatives and resources had varying degrees of connection to vegetable and fruit access and consumption. She just had to find where those connections occurred from both the obvious and not-so-obvious standpoints.

Mary Ann incorporated a Consumption Crisis standing item into the ASPHN board meeting agendas, carving out a monthly slice of time to discuss strategy with fellow board members. She reached out to ASPHN’s Policy Committee to see how it could prioritize and support fruit and vegetable policy initiatives at the national level. She persuaded ASPHN’s councils to incorporate fruit and vegetable consumption into their missions.

Driven by the fact that “something had to change,” she spearheaded ASPHN’s Vegetable and Fruit Call for Action and inspired the Checklist for Change. She kept telling herself, “If we don’t care, who will?”

“Everything we do in public health nutrition is evidence-based and interconnected,” she explains. “Whether we’re talking about health equity, obesity, maternal outcomes or early childhood development, it all relates to good nutrition. And the health benefits of fruits and vegetables provide a proven solution to all these issues.”

Lasting Impact 

Mary Ann’s tenacity and ability to think big have helped ASPHN chart a course that may finally help move the needle in a positive direction. The Call for Action is garnering national support and generating important conversations. And for the first time in over 50 years, the White House has convened a Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, bringing together a wide range of stakeholders to work on common goals. As she thinks about the future, Mary Ann is hopeful this type of historic event will forge lasting alliances between the public and private sectors. Alliances that will positively impact American eating patterns and overall health. Her optimism is genuine, contagious and inspiring, leading us directly to Habit 4: Think Win-Win (Everyone Can Win).

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