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Perishable Pundit
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Produce Business

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American Food & Ag Exporter

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While Brighter Bites Steps Up With Retail Voucher Program And Participation In USDA’s Farmers-To-Families Food Box Project, Produce Industry Heroes Are Needed To Provide Product, Distribution And Funding

It has been a long time since our first mention of Rich Dachman in the Pundit:

Dachman To Head Sysco’s Produce Division

But we’ve remained engaged:

2018 London Produce Show’s Thought-Leader Breakfast Features All-Star Cast Of Industry Luminaries

Foodservice Forum At New York Produce Show Puts Produce First On Restaurant Menus

Set Your Alarm For Wednesday, December 7, As 10 Heavyweight Thought Leaders Take The Stage At New York Produce Show’s Keynote Breakfast

Industry Veterans And Rising Stars Volunteer To Lead University Interchange Mentorship Program

“IDEATION FRESH” Foodservice Forum At New York Produce Show And Conference To Tackle Produce Procurement ‘Disconnects’

Now, at this moment of pandemic, a lifetime of preparation has put Rich in a situation where he can do a lot of good for the world.

We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out how:

Rich Dachman
CEO
Brighter Bites
Houston, Texas

Q: Long before the COVID-19 crisis, we were keen to distinguish that the Brighter Bites foundational platform and model were unique standouts from other food donation programs, not only in its mission to get fresh produce to families in need, but to change eating behaviors based on scientific research, the use of evidence-based strategies and prolonged data tracking to justify its effectiveness.

In a memorable and dynamic Q&A, Lisa Helfman, founder of Brighter Bites, and Dr. Shreela Sharma, co-founder, brilliantly laid out the case for this scientific approach to increase produce consumption and create long term consumers.

Currently, there has been a surge in food insecurity, with reports of food banks overwrought by escalating demand... What ways have you been able to pivot to keep your program viable for Brighter Bites families? And have you expanded your reach to help more people being affected by the crisis? It seems like quite an undertaking to coordinate, especially since schools were the central vehicle Brighter Bites used to connect with families to educate and distribute produce...

A: With the coronavirus, the socio-economic divide has been exacerbated. There’s an elevated precedent to figure out a way to help people eat healthy foods to boost their immune systems. And now with the economic downturn, people are requiring assistance more than ever.

I have participated in our distributions… you sit there for hours, you bag produce up, and you do it for multiple, multiple pallets. I had to leave for a meeting after packing bags for 3 hours, and as I was driving away, there were still blocks and blocks of cars lined up, as families waited to pick up their Brighter Bites bags. That day, distribution started at 10:00 am, and cars were lining up at 8:00 am. The need is dire. It’s extraordinarily sad but gratifying that we can do something about it.

Partnering with the Houston Food Bank and the YMCA of Greater Houston, Brighter Bites is distributing hundreds of thousands of pounds of free, fresh, immune-boosting produce to more than 20,000 Houston families each week at different locations across the city at a time when they need it most. 

Q: How has the coronavirus crisis impacted the Brighter Bites mission?

A: Our mission is creating community health through fresh food. Our mission has always been, and continues to be, to get fresh produce to our families, and to influence their eating behavior.

Right now, you see a lot of articles showing it is more important than ever to be healthy. People are seeing their immune systems are a differentiator and important to maintain in deterring COVID-19. Eating fresh fruits and vegetables and having a healthy lifestyle are a great deterrent. So, that fits with our mission beautifully. To answer your question, our method of execution has changed, but our mission hasn’t changed.

Q: The industry always walks a fine line with legal health claims linked to increased fresh produce consumption. Can you elaborate on these links as it relates to COVID-19?

A: I can point to a recent New York Times article: Obesity Linked to Severe Coronavirus Disease, Especially for Younger Patients. It clearly referenced obesity as the number one or two cause for hospital stays. Our purpose is to help our families reduce obesity and eat healthier. So, definitely, there’s a correlation there.

Jane Brody’s article, How Poor Diet Contributes to Coronavirus Risk, reports a higher incidence of COVID-19 in lower income communities, where the obesity epidemic is more prevalent, along with the diet-related diseases that usually come along with obesity, hypertension, diabetes, heart disease... all these things that are connected. Obesity can be controlled by dietary behavior.  

Q: Could we delve deeper into the latest developments at Brighter Bites, and the two main program paths you’re pursuing:

A: Beyond providing the fresh produce, nutrition education is a big part of what we do. We’ve converted to a long-distance learning model, where we are connecting with our families online and through social media so they can continue to receive the education that is an important part of our program.

We send our family newsletter on a weekly basis, and many of our cities are doing their own digital outreach. As part of our communication strategy, we are developing an app to give direct access to families, to connect at a higher level. As we expand and adapt to this new world, I think that’s critical. We have a targeted cookbook with multiple healthy recipes that we’ve made available on our website in English and ultimately in Spanish. And our educational material is in English and Spanish.

Q: For context, could you walk us through how the program has operated before the coronavirus crisis, and the challenges in this new world?

A: Normally, for the most part with a few exceptions, we partner with our local food banks and they provide fresh produce for us. We identify an elementary school in a place, and the food bank delivers the produce to the school, 4 to 5 pallets, depending on how many Brighter Bites families are there. The parents work with volunteers, and they meet the truck along with the Brighter Bites team — we have two Brighter Bites employees generally at each school.

The volunteers will take the pallets off the truck and bring them to the cafeteria or assembly room, or designated space for the program. At that time, there’s an assembly line created, and people weigh product and determine how much of each product should go in the bag, and the packing process begins... put in three tomatoes, two mangos, etc., which creates a separate bag we keep track of.

It ends up that we require 8 to 10 different varieties in each set of bags — we’re not specific about what those are, but the amount we provide each family generally totals 20 to 25 pounds, with two bags. We also include nutritional educational materials in the bags, as well as on the tables. And that’s the morning.

Sometimes the volunteers will create 700, 800 or 1000 bags. Then, later in the day, the families come to pick up the bags. They need to be registered for our program, which happens at the beginning of the school year.

When the families arrive, they have a key card we scan, and that brings up all their information. We track all our families for what they pick up each week.

Q: Is there any stigma the kids or their parents feel about being part of the program?

A: When the families come in, it’s important we create a welcoming experience. We want them to feel comfortable. We want it to be fun and enjoyable, and not an intimidating situation, where they would be concerned about what anybody thinks. We create a fun experience for the kids and engage them.

There has to be a sample of one of the recipes — it could be a kale smoothie; it could be a broccoli carrot recipe... so the kids get to try something while they’re waiting in line to get their two bags of produce, and they ask lots of questions. During that time, we’re also teaching interactively, asking the kids, what should you eat, what’s a serving... So this creates around 50 to 55 servings.

Q: How do you measure whether the families actually consume those servings? And once the program ends, how can you be sure they don’t revert to their old habits? Isn’t that the ultimate challenge? Could you refresh my memory on the case studies you’ve conducted?

A: We track a lot of data, which really separates us from other programs. Our co-founder Dr. Shreela Sharma, a professor of epidemiology at UT School of Public Health, and her staff track significant data of eating habits, of how servings of produce are increased from beginning to end of the program and then what happens after the program is over. We’re able to track dozens and dozens of metrics, because we’re able to survey our families and get information over prolonged periods.

One of my most proud statistics is that on average, from the time when families started Brighter Bites and went through the program, they increased their servings of fruits and vegetables by 19 servings per family and maintained that increase years later.

Q: Over what time period, and how many families?

A: We tracked 100’s of families during the program, which is a duration of three years, and then we followed the families two years after it was over to evaluate the program’s effectiveness. This two-year case study, a non-randomized controlled comparative effectiveness trial, focused on 760 low-income first graders and their families at nine schools in Houston, Texas, during the 2013-15 school years.  Results were published in a scientific peer reviewed journal Preventive Medicine. [Editor’s note: you can read the full study here.]

Q: So, when you’re changing distribution strategies to accommodate the coronavirus upheaval, these are already Brighter Bites families familiar with the program?

A: As we’ve had to pivot, some of our distributions have been more general because we haven’t been able to do the program at the same schools we were at, so, we’re not reaching all the families. That’s why we started the voucher program, which is exclusively for our Brighter Bites families.

Just because we ran into hurdles with our traditional distribution, we didn’t want them to do without the food. The voucher program is the solution to make sure that 100 percent of our families aren’t missing out on the produce they have come to expect from our program.

Q: Uninterrupted distribution takes on elevated importance for Brighter Bites families, who face even more obstacles with the coronavirus crisis. In addition to upholding the tenants of the model... how important is the duration of how long a family stays on the program? Does it matter if it’s one year, two years or three years...?

A: Our model is to stay at one school for three years; we distribute eight weeks in the fall, and eight weeks in the spring. Our statistics show that the 16-week time period is the necessary time to change behavior. We also distribute in the summer, but that’s a little more loose as the kids aren’t in school, so we focus on the spring and the fall. Once we’ve been in a school three years, we change to a new school. If a school has been off the program for three years, they can get back on it.

Q: Could you provide more perspective on the scope of the program and what’s happening with your plans going forward?

A: Our program started in 2012 in Texas. Since then, we’ve delivered more than 27 million pounds of produce to over 275,000 families. Presently we are serving families who attend 100 schools in Houston, Dallas, Austin, New York City, Washington, D.C. (the Prince George, MD area), and also Southwest Florida, so we’re in six cities today. We have a three-year expansion plan to expand to eight more cities.

We have an immediate plan this year to expand to two more cities, the Rio Grande Valley, McAllen, TX area, and Salinas, CA, where we’ve been requested to come. It is still in our plans to expand later in the year, but everything is in flux now. It may be 2021 until we actually expand because of reopening of schools and food banks, which we depend on, and are so appreciative of. We need to be careful not to put extra pressure on them as they have so much to do. We’ll just have to wait and see about our expansion plans in the future.

Q: How do you compensate for variances in different food bank capacity and infrastructure? Is this where partnerships with suppliers and foodservice distributors can help?

A: The food bank is always our first choice. We’ve found opportunity also connecting a foodservice distributor in some of our cities to help us make deliveries. For example, the McAllen, TX foodbank didn’t have the capacity to make deliveries. It didn’t have the logistics and ability to warehouse product. So, a distributor in McAllen has agreed to do our logistics and warehousing.

Because we’re not there, I’d rather just keep the name of the foodservice distributor generic for now. And we’ve been doing that in other cities as well, long before COVID-19, outsourcing foodservice distributors for our logistics.

We do have some great partners with distribution, first and foremost, the food banks are really amazing in all our cities we do business with... I’d like to highlight Hardies in Austin and Dallas. FreshPoint is a great partner of ours, as well as D’Arrigo in New York and Coastal in Washington D.C. They are just remarkable partners in what they’ve done for us.

Coastal and D’Arrigo provide a portion of our produce. They donate on a weekly basis their own product under normal circumstances to keep our program alive and healthy. The food bank is giving as well. They are our core partners in those areas.

Hardies works as our food bank in Austin. We use their warehouse and their trucks. They receive all our donations. And then FreshPoint, specifically in Dallas, helps us with our logistics. This is a great partnership, where the North Texas Food Bank didn’t have enough resources and trucks to make deliveries to schools, so we asked FreshPoint, and they agreed to do it.

There are a few suppliers that have been extraordinary partners for us, and we wouldn’t be able to do without them. Lipman is a top supplier. Walmart is an incredible funding partner. Other key suppliers include Taylor Farms Texas, Mann Packing (Del Monte Fresh), Southern Specialties, Chelan Fresh, Church Brothers and Tom Lange.

RETAIL VOUCHER PROGRAM

Q: How did the idea for the retail voucher program come about?

A: We had a challenge where our schools closed. Many of our families were either concerned about coming out, or they were not in a reasonable location for them to come and pick up their Brighter Bites bags.

Our team was challenged to find an option, and they came up with this idea. People need to go to the grocery store anyway. If we can find a way to integrate the Brighter Bites program into what’s in their routine to get food, that’s great. Could we give them a voucher to allow them to get up to $25 in produce at the supermarket, to provide them with this type of food that is so important right now? How do we get produce to our families when the normal supply chain is broken? This is a way we could do that.

Right now, we have two retail partners (H-E-B and Southeastern Grocers, parent company of Winn-Dixie stores) to launch the program, and we’re trying to get more. The coupon, a three-fold piece of paper, has the retailer’s name on it, showing the partnership. Before we send out the coupon to our families, we communicate with them ahead of time, a few weeks in advance, so they understand it.  The vouchers have different time frames for usage, anywhere from 10 days, to two weeks, to six weeks depending on the city. They shop for their produce at the participating store, and then they get a $25 credit at the register.

Q: How do you communicate with the families regarding the voucher program, and are you able to monitor how it’s working?

A: I’d like to say that our team is really close to their families. We generally communicate through email and text. We didn’t have their home addresses because we never needed them. Our team went on an aggressive adventure to reach out to our families. They created a registration form, and said, here’s what we’re doing… if you’d like to participate, please enter your home address and you will receive this voucher.

Within a week to ten days, we were able to get as much as 70 to 75 percent of families’ addresses, and we’re still looking for 100 percent. It was incredible… literally everyone making phone calls to our families. We’re talking about over 10,000 addresses in the Houston and Austin area alone.

Q: H-E-B is an ideal partner to jumpstart the retail voucher program, as a pioneering supporter of Brighter Bites, a collaboration bridged through Lisa Helfman...

A: Our founder Lisa Helfman works for H-E-B, and she was obviously instrumental in developing this partnership, and we’re really grateful for that. What we asked H-E-B to do for our families in Houston and Austin, and then Winn-Dixie for our families in Southwest Florida, as well was ask if they would be willing to give our families a voucher, not a gift card, because if you give a gift card and it’s not used, you still pay for it. If we give a voucher, we only pay for what’s redeemed.

Could you create a voucher that can only be used for fresh produce and we want to value this at $25? And would you be willing to partner with us, and even discount that so you’re helping with the donation? Other organizations agreed to help out and discount the coupon. H-E-B went as far as paying for the printing of the coupon themselves. These are great retail partners to allow us to get this program started.

The H-E-B Houston, Austin vouchers started getting mailed out. We intend to do the vouchers for our families every other week for a three-month time period, because we know that $25 in produce is about the value that we normally give them. So, this way they can continue to get that same amount of produce.

Q: Will you be able to collect data to monitor the success of the program in keeping with the Brighter Bites model? It could be interesting to learn about the amount and types of produce items the families choose at the supermarket, since you won’t be selecting the produce for them...

A: The really great news, which we’re all excited about, is we’re actually able to track the purchases, and get the data.

Q: That type of information could provide a whole new level of insights. Will the retailers be sharing that data, or will you be gathering that information through the families?

A: We can understand if the families go out and purchase the produce, what are they attracted to, what are they going to buy. Let me just add, being a produce industry veteran… this is what I call a win-win-win, because the product is being purchased, promotion for the grower because more consumers are purchasing their product.

We also want donations, don’t get me wrong, but this is a chance for them to purchase the product. The retailer is also getting the purchase and obviously when the consumers come in, they’re not just going to buy that fresh produce. So, it’s good for the retailer, it’s good for the grower, and it’s great for our families.

Q: Maybe this will incentivize families to pick up even more produce beyond the amount of the voucher, or other ingredients for recipes you’ve shared with them...

A: We sure hope so. We all know today when people are going to the store now, they’re buying for extended periods of time. We’re concerned produce may not be on their shopping list as much as it should. We know processed snack products have increased because they’re pantry items. Our program is injecting healthy food into their diet, which is more important than ever now. If they didn’t have this voucher, they probably wouldn’t be doing that, so it’s critical and makes sense.

Parents leaving a Brighter Bites produce distribution in Immokalee, FL, on March 18, where more than 500 families received 12 different produce items donated by Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida, Inc., Southern Specialties / Southern Selects, Freedom Fresh, and B&W Quality Growers.

Q: It also will be interesting to see what produce they purchase, because the items may be different during this crisis than what they might have chosen otherwise...

A: I agree with you.

Q: Is the voucher just for use in the fresh produce department? Will there be any confusion at checkout on what is included?

A: I’ll have to wait to answer that question! We’ve been clear in our communication and the store has been clear with the messaging on the voucher. It’s almost like a prescription for produce.

Q: That’s a lovely way to describe the program!

A: As long as we have enough money for it, we will continue the program every other week. Initially, we have enough funding I would say for two to three distributions, and we’re in a campaign right now to get more funds. We’ll continue as long as we have the money for it.

Q: Could you provide more information about the total costs involved? What will it take to extend the program, the outlets you’re using to get funding, and how retailers and produce industry executives can help?

A: If we were to go as far to get vouchers for all our families in all the cities, and doing that bi-weekly five times as we talked about over a 10- to 12-week time period, the cost is nearly $2 million. Brighter Bites was positioned to put in one million dollars upfront with what we had in our budget. We’re campaigning all we can for the rest and looking for donations through our normal channels.

If you go to brighterbites.org, the first thing that comes up is a popup for donations to serve our families during this pandemic. We’d be happy to take whatever individuals can give, from $25 to $1,000, and we’re obviously looking for the industry to support this as well.

Then we have fun projects going on (you don’t hear the word fun very often these days).

I enjoy good wine, and many of my friends do as well, so I reached out to 30 of my dear friends, names you’d recognize, to look in their own private wine sellers to donate their own wine for a silent auction to raise funds for this program. People started writing back, and in two weeks, we already had 80 lots of wine, in excess of $60,000 in retail value, and we still have donations coming in.

We’re going to have this silent auction, Wine for a Cause, this Memorial Day weekend, along with registration links if you’d like to be a part of it. And we’re still open to anyone who reads this to donate wine for the auction. If you’re interested, please reach out to me. [rich.dachman@brighterbites.org].

PMA has really stepped up to help promote this through their various communication abilities and they are a great supporter of Brighter Bites.

Q: Have you received interest from more retailers to support your voucher program?

A: We are talking to multiple other retailers. We’ve taken care of Austin, Houston and Southwest Florida, but we need retail participation in Dallas, New York and Washington D.C. areas. We have variations of Brighter Bites programs in each of the cities to solve the dilemmas of distribution. If retailers in these areas are interested in supporting us with this voucher program, we could sure use their support.

Q: So, this voucher program is limited to Brighter Bites families. Would there be a way that other families in need could sign up for the program, as a way to increase your Brighter Bites members, or perhaps develop an iteration of the voucher concept to reach more people?

A: It’s a funding question. Our primary goal is to continue to provide for the families we already serve. With expanded funding, we could provide to more people, but we need to make sure that we make our families primary. And yes, we’ve already talked about that, and we have unique stories of families that have needed help. Our team did a COVID-19 survey and found some families in dire need. We had our team go to grocery stores and buy food, diapers, and formula and deliver to these families individually.

When you hear some of these comments, it brings tears to your eyes. Seeing the personal toll of this crisis has choked up all of us.

You ask if this could become a broader part of our program going forward. We’ll always stick to our core strategy of getting produce to people. I do believe this voucher program will have a place going forward. I’m not exactly sure what that is, but I think this allows us to further penetrate families that might not have gotten it before.

I think it’s good for the entire industry because it just promotes produce at the retail level, at the grower level... there’s no downside, as long as we can continue to fund it. I believe a part of that program will always continue to supplement our core distribution.  

Q: This is a good segue to your other distribution strategies...

A: We are organizing large-scale distributions to serve hundreds of families at a time with fresh produce while complying with CDC safety guidelines.

Our schools are closed from use in their traditional fashion. We’re working a lot with YMCA’s, specifically in Houston, churches, schools, etc., to do drive-through distributions, which we’ve been able to do millions of times. In certain cases, we are using outside schools as distribution points. We’re just not doing it at the same time that people are picking up lunches. We can be at one school and serve families from multiple schools.

On March 27, Brighter Bites in Dallas, TX distributed 10,000 pounds of free fresh fruits and vegetables donated by FreshPoint Dallas to 500 families. Instead of going to waste, 10 different varieties went home to the kitchens of each family, including baby carrots, English cucumbers, Asian pears, red and green bell peppers, tomatoes, limes, red grapes, and honeydew. Distributions are continuing weekly at various locations. 

When we do distributions at alternative locations, the whole community is invited. We send special text messages to our families, but the locations may send out information as well, so 50 percent of the people who come might be Brighter Bites families.

We continue to search for opportunities to reach our families. The retail produce voucher is one way.

Q: On the logistics side, are there different distribution challenges and coronavirus-related issues based on the city and location, etc.? You mention connecting with the YMCA, for instance. How do these partnerships work? Are you extending your collaborations with foodservice distributors?

A: In Houston, we have nine YMCA sites, distributing two times each week, 1200 families per site, and 40,000 pounds per site.

In Dallas, we are collaborating with FreshPoint and Hardies for distributions with Dallas ISD Schools, Casa Del Lago, and previously YMCA. In Austin, we’re serving 1,250 Brighter Bites families per week (and all Austin Brighter Bites schools every other week).

In D.C., food distribution in Prince George’s County, MD, is an effort with a local council woman in partnership with Coastal.

And in Southwest Florida, we’re partnering with the Boys and Girls Clubs, and Harry Chapin Food Bank.

In markets where we don’t have a retail partner, such as New York, Brighter Bites is working with an organization called Queens Together in conjunction with The Connected Chef, re-employing restaurant workers to help package and deliver bags of fresh produce directly to the doors of 1,300 Brighter Bites families in Queens and 700 other food insecure families in Queens.

Q: You’re getting some nice local coverage [here and here].

A: We’re doing some unique programs, and a great example is in New York, where our director there connected with out-of-work foodservice employees through Queens Together, which is serving meals through a commissary to thousands of healthcare workers in Queens. Brighter Bites asked, would you be willing to prepare our produce bags, and they said yes.

The produce is coming from City Harvest, a tremendous partner. City Harvest is picking up its produce from the Port of Philadelphia and offered to provide an extra 40,000 pounds of produce a week to Brighter Bites. But in New York, our families didn’t want to come out, which is very understandable with what’s going on out there. So, we found a ton of ways, including employing foodservice workers to deliver produce to 2,000 families in New York.

Q: It’s great the way you’re partnering and innovating...

A: You have to be innovative. Everybody must pivot and find new ways to do things. It’s a new world. This is not temporary, by the way. This is going to be around for a long time.

Q: What are your expectations, when you say this is not temporary?

A: We’re not sure… we can’t be sure of what’s going to happen. But we’re confident there will continue to be social distancing through the summer. And we’re going to have to continue to find ways, and we all know in the summer it has always been more difficult than ever for families to get food with schools out. We’re going to be as aggressive as we possibly can to continue to live under the parameters that are set to keep our communities and families safe.

I see the social distancing piece continuing and people continuing to be out of work, to a great degree. And the need is going to be great. There is no guarantee schools will start in the fall. I don’t know. We have to be prepared to continue to provide these services to these families in need. We should assume things aren’t going to change, and if they do then we’ll adjust, but we have to be ready to provide produce under the most extreme circumstances.

USDA’S FARMERS-TO-FAMILIES FOOD BOX PROGRAM

Q: Are you involved in USDA’s Farmers-To-Families Food Box Program? It’s something you’ve been specializing in for quite some time...

A: Brand new to our world is the USDA’s new Farmers to Families Food Box program, and we’re almost overwhelmed because we have so many people coming to us. The program is about packing a variety of products in a box and partnering with non-profits to work with distributors to get produce to families in need, which is what we’ve been doing for years. We want to be a part of this. We want to be the non-profit that distributors use, not just in cities that we’re in, but in other cities.

We can help because we have a lot of expertise. We are reaching out to our foodservice partners in multiple cities to assist them in this program, to get the produce from the USDA grower to the foodservice distributor to distributions in areas of need. We want to be a part of it, we are a part of it, and we think we can provide some great subject matter and best practices.

For example, we dictate how many items go in the box, what types of varieties, types for nutrition balance, how to pack heavier items on the bottom, what types of products to use without refrigeration, to stay away from fresh-cut fruit, which, of course, is not a good item to keep outside of refrigeration, etc.

Now in our new world of COVID-19, we have to look carefully at best practices and making sure you have social distancing at places of distribution and the masks, gloves and all the proper equipment to stay safe. How to pack a good box for the families, but how do you execute distribution at a YMCA or a school or a parking lot? This is all new to others, but we’ve been doing this for a while so we’re good at it.

We’re recommending the Farmers to Families food boxes include our nutrition education, how to store the items, how to prepare them. We believe that’s critical. Right now, it’s not included. We’re hoping to include recipes, and then how to prepare certain produce, what to stock in the pantry, tips on how to eat healthy on a budget, which is crucial now. We’re hoping that will happen.

Q: You have good evidence to support the extra funding for that...

A: It’s just come up now because this is so new. If we’re chosen as a non-profit partner, we would be recommending to the food distributor to include that cost. We actually did a cost analysis, and it’s only going to be about 10 cents to add this nutrition education material. We believe it’s very critical.

Our job is to change behavior. It just happens we use produce to do this with education and a positive experience for our families; that is our existence to change the way people eat and in turn change their health. It doesn’t just have to be a feeding program. And we track what we do to prove what we do makes a difference.

Q: That’s what makes your program unique.

A: This is how we’re going to get people to consume more produce. I spoke with Jim (Prevor) and he asked, what can we do to help Brighter Bites. We’re so appreciative of your coverage. I really liked Tim York’s interview. It was enlightening. I’ve been reading all your Q&A’s, and you’ve done a great job in providing important insights and capturing how the produce industry is reinventing itself...

This is a chance for the produce industry to step up and be the hero during this crisis. We can look at this as a tough time, but this is a time people need food and to maintain their health. This is an opportunity for us to step up in a crisis and help people at risk from diet-related diseases and be a part of the solution.

******

Though the produce industry has its problems – notably the reverberations of the closing of most restaurants and the impact this has had on the suppliers to foodservice – we have seen sales rise through the retail channel.

It is fair enough that the industry turned to government to try and get some help — and the government has responded both with general programs available to most businesses, such as the Payroll Protection Program and with specialized programs, such as the Farmers to Families Food Box Program.

Right now, the entire country is focused on finding a way out of the coronavirus problem but, one day, and soon, many important constituencies — people, politicians, academics, etc. — will be looking across the country and asking which industries, which companies, which people were the heroes of the moment and which were simply trying to get all they could.

It would be very good if the conclusion was that the produce industry was a good guy, on the side of the people. Brighter Bites gives the industry a path. All who can... should walk that path.

Many thanks to Rich Dachman and the Brighter Bites team for helping so many in need and for giving the produce industry such a special opportunity.

 




MORE COVID COMMENTARIES:
Terminal Market Wholesalers Across The US Tell It Like It Is In Nation’s Most Populous Cities

Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS set out to poll various leaders on the nation’s wholesale terminal markets to give the industry a glimpse of what is happening in various metro areas during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Activities on these markets change rapidly each day, but the responses below reveal a steady determination to supply the needs of our most populous cities and to also take care of the needy. To get a feeling of the magnitude and fluidity of the situation, we highlight some recent comments from Tommy Piazza, who is the Director of Potato Procurement and Marketing at Community-Suffolk, Inc., in Boston:

This pandemic has been so contrary to our way of life. It has effected the balance of our lives entirely.

To preface, please understand that the way business is today is much different from the first month of this tragedy. Initially there was the boom in business like that before a snow storm. People flocked to the supermarkets to grab all the basics — and then some. There was an urgency that I had never experienced before.

The chains could not keep produce on the shelf. As fast as it was stocked, it was emptied. This led to a giant rush on many of the staple items in the produce department, especially in the comfort food category and of product that would store well. Consumers would buy extra and postpone their next trip to the supermarkets.

Potatoes, onions, sweet potatoes, etc., were being pulled from the terminal markets in substantial volume — with unprecedented demand and volume!

Things went on like that for a solid month or longer, but since then..... much has changed. The produce fast track had proven to be effective, and KUDOS TO ALL OF US WHO KEPT IT ROLLING, but eventually supply caught up and in many cases now surpasses demand.

Today many states are opening restaurants on a limited basis, and retail stores are seeing less hoarding and more regularity in produce shopping patterns. Terminal markets continue to represent a barometer of the produce industry.

SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO

Peter Carcione
President
Carcione's Fresh Produce Co., Inc.

Q: What items are currently selling and not selling on the market?

A: All produce is selling well. The greens, such as spinach and broccoli, are in demand. Bananas and avocados are big sellers. Clementines and tangerines are great. Navel oranges and fuji apples are also wonderful.

We can't forget potatoes and onions and, of course, garlic ,which are in every kitchen. Mangos, papayas (from Mexico and Hawaii ) and the wonderful Hawaiian pineapple are all great.

Q: What new buying outlets are being explored/reached?

A: New buying outlets being explored are the new accounts outside our market. This is really paying off with Fruit Guys and Amazon, for example.

Q: How hard is it to get transportation to and from your market?

A: Because we are located in California, transportation has not been a problem. Most products are sourced from Nogales or Salinas.

Q: Are prices going up on all or some items? Any items where prices have fallen?

A:Since supplies are good, prices on good merchandise are steady. Demand on garlic and avocados did spike for a short while. They are OK now.

Q: Are more companies trying to consign items?

A:There have been some consignments, but not enough to flood the market.

Q: Is the market rejecting or accepting more products that do not meet grade?

A: Being bonded commission wholesalers, we do not reject any grower who wishes to use our market. The only exception is very poor quality.

Q: Are suppliers trying to “dump” more items than usual?

A: There is some dumping, but not enough to endanger the market on good merchandise.

Q: Many producers of products sold primarily through the foodservice channel are looking for markets. How can the terminal markets help them?

A: Helping foodservice to find products would be a good online communication to source locally as well as to growers and shippers.

Q: How are credit terms being changed in these volatile times

A: Credit terms are the same, with the one exception of working with our good customers who need more time.

Q: If you could make one wish to help your market overall, what would it be?

A: My one wish to help the market overall is to have an up-to-the-minute website that lists every item we sell with an up-to-the-minute inventory, label and price that could be ordered online. We are working on this.

LOS ANGELES

Matthew Clark
President
LA Produce Distributors

Q: What items are currently selling and not selling on the market?  

A: Initially all of the longer storage items, such as potatoes, onions, garlic, etc., were selling really well ! Now they are completely flat and very hard to sell. More than selling by items, now it’s more about outlet. Retail had 3 very good weeks, and then around March 22, it went dead for 2 weeks.

Currently, retail sales are at about 80% of our budget and foodservice at about 20% of budget.  On average, sales are down with regards to a normal April.

Q: How hard is it to get transportation to and from your market?

A: No real issues. Trucks are plenty available. The port of Los Angeles has been a little slower than usual especially the first weeks of the stay-at-home order.

Q: Are prices going up on all or some items? Any items where prices have fallen?

A: Most prices are depressed. Sales are very tough to get now.

Q: Are more companies trying to consign items?

A: Yes.  Many.

Q: Is the market rejecting or accepting more products that do not meet grade?  

A: We have had many lots on consignment where the condition does not meet grade. Many cancelled orders from other importers/growers.

Q: Are suppliers trying to “dump” more items than usual?

A: Yes.

Q: How is the market able to help producers of foodservice items looking for new markets? 

A: Most customers today are only just-in-time orders. No one wants to carry inventory due to the uncertainty of the demand, so we are able to be that buffer. We are a full house importer/distributor and wholesaler, so we can offer our customers the full range of products in smaller quantities when needed and still make a minimum delivery threshold.

Q: How are credit terms being changed in these volatile times.

A: We have tightened up our credit terms and are working with many customers with their late pays.  Foodservice is very late in their payments, and in some cases, not even paying the past due balances.

Q: If you could make one wish to help your market overall, what would it be…  

A: Open the restaurants again, at least applying the social distancing measures.

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CHICAGO

Rob Strube III
President
Strube Celery & Vegetable Co.

Q: Have you been able to maintain your sales capacity?

A: We haven’t been hit as hard as we would have expected with a drop off of foodservice. We don’t want to come across that everything is perfect. We understand it’s not.

Q: What items are currently selling and not selling on the market? Are prices going up on all or some items? Any items where prices have fallen?

A: Since we sell everything from A-Z, we are still handling everything, and FOB pricing still dictates up and down market conditions. Strube is trying to stay a little leaner inventory-wise to keep everything moving a little quicker.

My salesman all have tons of years of experience, so they know how to work strong markets along with weaker ones. Luckily our business model has not changed much except maybe shorter hours since our primary customers are retail.

We are probably staying a little leaner on inventory, just getting it in and out faster. If there is any kind of change, we’re just trying not to be long on anything. I think veg is moving as well as it always has. Fruit is moving OK.

As far as the buying aspects, the guys still need grapes and oranges… and lettuce and tomatoes. They’re still buying. Maybe if they bought 50 boxes, now they’re buying 25. But they’re still buying some to make sure it’s in the stores.

No one is saying, “I won’t handle a cantaloupe or a sweet onion anymore.” None of that is going on. I haven’t seen anything like that happening where someone isn’t going to buy an item.

I don’t want to sound insensitive to those who are in trouble, but we’re not taking a beating or anything like that. Our business model hasn’t really changed a lot with everything that’s happening.

Q: Many producers of products sold primarily through the foodservice channel are looking for markets. How can the terminal markets help them?

A: Our foodservice business is maybe five percent of our total business. I feel for the jobbers out here because they can’t go out and peddle to the restaurants, and we’ve adjusted all our inventories accordingly.

I deal with small independents that go to restaurants, so, we’ve taken a little hit on that, but not in the same way because we’re so heavily focused on retail. We’re one of the lucky ones that haven’t really had to change anything.

Q: Are you finding more demand for packaged items?

A: No, not in our markets. We get the packaged salads, organic salads and things like that, but I haven’t seen a big influx. I see our inventory… if were bringing in 30, we’re still bringing in 30, not 100. I have not seen any of that.

[An increase in packaged items] might be at store level here in the city, but I’ve been to a few grocery stores here, and I’m not seeing anything dramatically change with packaged items.

Q: How hard is it to get transportation to and from your market?

A: The only thing that I see that will probably happen here in the next few weeks, a month or sooner… hearing and talking to some of the trucking companies here in Chicago… is the backhauls going west just leaving the state are probably going to start reducing, which is going to make the trucks coming back from those areas to haul produce a lot tighter or a lot shorter, so prices will go up on freight.

It could be sooner than later. We’re not sure yet. My one guy here in Chicago said it’s getting harder and harder to get backhauls back out west to get the produce. So, we might see a drastic change on that.

Q: Is there anything else that you think would be important to point out?

A: 100 percent of our employees have masks on. Because we are an open market, we usually let customers go into the coolers, but now we’re not allowing customers to go into coolers to pick pallets they want to buy from. That is one adjustment that our buyers in Chicago have had to make.

It’s just nutty. Everything is upside down; you don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong. You make a decision and it could change in 24 hours. It could change in six hours.

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DETROIT

Dominic Riggio
President
Riggio Distribution Company

Q: What items are currently selling and not selling on the market?

A: Retail items that are bagged or packaged are selling the best. Foodservice items are at about 10% of normal volume.

Q: How hard is it to get transportation to and from your market?

A: Our transportation relationships are solid and we are having no issues.

Q: Are prices going up on all or some items? Any items where prices have fallen?

A: The prices are following the normal flow of supply and demand.

Q: If you could make one wish to help your market overall, what would it be?

A: Obviously, we all wish for the health and safety for all the employees, customers, and suppliers in our market.

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BOSTON

Tommy Piazza
Director of Potato Procurement
and Marketing

Community-Suffolk Inc.

Q: What items are currently selling and not selling on the market?

A: Items that are selling off the markets now are still the comfort food items as well as more varied items such as berries, though certainly not at the volume during the height of the frenzy. Now product that is in bags, wrapped or in clamshells are in demand, while the bulk packs are slowing way down as bulk displays disappear more slowly.

Commodities that are split up into units for individual sale are sought after. Foodservice packs are the slower movers now and will be until the restaurants and everything else begins to normalize... it may be a while. Meanwhile, those foodservice packs have back-logged at shipping point to the detriment of the shippers and the value.

Q: What new buying outlets are being explored/reached?

A: Farm stands and smaller produce stores, where there are no large crowds, are doing great business. Pop-up roadside stands seem to be less intimidating than waiting in line 6 feet apart and being checked for masks upon entering 2 or 4 at a time.

Q: How hard is it to get transportation to and from your market?

A: The truck situation has tightened up as the average drivers now are older and need to watch out for their own health, so they locked down like so many others. After the initial surge, the demand for trucks exploded, and the manufactured goods and back-haul items from the East were not available . Perhaps drivers were less inclined to go East toward the hot spots of the virus.

Q: Are prices going up on all or some items? Any items where prices have fallen?

A: I'm sure markets are rising on some commodities, but when you see onions being disced up and potatoes in piles in the fields, it seems the COVID situation, like everywhere else, had a detrimental effect.

Q: Are more companies trying to consign items, and is the market accepting more products that do not meet grade?

A: Yes! Growers need to recoup some of their investment.

Q: How is the market able to help producers of foodservice items looking for new markets? 

A: The foodservice companies and regional wholesalers/distributers have been forced to be creative, innovative, motivated and resourceful. The terminal markets are working hand-in-hand with their customer base.

Many foodservice companies jumped into the home-delivery business, creating different ways of getting food to the people while keeping their own people employed and keeping product moving through their facilities. Many are making mixed boxes of different sizes and offering them through on-line ordering, Facebook and word-of-mouth. Some have modified their offerings by the size of the household, or by specific diet preferences.

They have reinvented and reworked their offerings to attract the myriad of different types of consumers in their areas or by budget or ethnicity. In my opinion, they are the outfits that had to react the fastest and be the most willing to try something new.

Q: If you could make one wish to help your market overall, what would it be?

A: Blessed art the flexible, for they won’t break. “Need is the mother of invention” has been the distributers’ war cry… and passion, courage, willingness and hard work have been their savior.

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HUNTS POINT PRODUCE MARKET

Matthew D’Arrigo
CEO
D’Arrigo New York

Q: What items are currently selling and not selling on the market?

A: Value packs and meal-ready items are selling well. Commodity items are behaving moderately with the exception of ginger, aloe, garlic and turmeric (immune boosters). Consumers are buying these items in larger quantity.

Q: What new buying outlets are being explored/reached?

A: We have relied upon our strong partnerships and have been working together to build more business.

Q: Are prices going up on all or some items? Any items where prices have fallen?

A: Markets are behaving pretty normally; they are going up and down all based on the supply-demand paradigm. 

Q: Are more companies trying to consign items?

A: Early on, the larger foodservice companies that were caught with excess inventory consigned into the market, but we are back to normal now.

Q: Is the market rejecting or accepting more products that do not meet grade?

A: We have always taken in all grades of product to reduce as much waste as possible. We are still practicing this.

Q: How is the market able to help producers of foodservice items looking for new markets?

A: Utilize the firms here — we have outlets.

Q:How are credit terms being changed in these volatile times?

AA general tightening of credit has occurred, with a general emphasis and higher level of importance on accounts-receivable departments. Due to 33% of our customers being foodservice suppliers, there is concern — varying degrees of loss of business. We are, however, well-positioned in the market. So our business changes. If the move is retail, we turn to retail. If foodservice is strong, we go that angle. Flexibility is essential... and is what we do.

Q: If you could make one wish to help your market overall, what would it be?

A: That we all make it through this safe and healthy. 

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Joel A Fierman
President 
Fierman Produce Exchange, Inc.

Q: What items are currently selling and not selling on the market?

A. Mostly bulk items that work predominantly in foodservice are not selling well. Fancy items are not doing well either. In my opinion, people are afraid to touch produce right now, even though we either wash, cook or peel it. Plus the packaging makes for a quicker shopping experience.

Q: What new buying outlets are being explored/reached?

A: Stores that shop the markets have many options. Plus they also can take advantage of pricing. They can run in-store specials based on availability of product. If I ran a retail operation, I would shop the market every day.

Q: Are prices going up on all or some items? Any items where prices have fallen?

A: Prices are stable, wholesale prices are driven simply by supply-and-demand. Some areas are choosing not to ship heavy, and many receivers are choosing not to commit to fixed pricing. But it depends on a number of factors, such as cost of production and freight expenses. Nobody wants to ship to lose money.

These all play a factor, but obviously an East Coast shipper may have reduced freight and a product with a longer shelf life, so the grower will use his or her relationship to make the most of a bad situation.

Personally we’ve cut back on volume, so we actually maximize returns.

Q: How hard is it to get transportation to and from your market?

A: I have had no issue with transportation. I have heard a small number of independent trucks not willing to come into the market. But let’s face it; it’s a bad time if a driver has a underlying medical condition… why force the issue?

Q: Is the market rejecting or accepting more products that do not meet grade?

A: Depends on what area of the country we are talking about. Also the relationship with that grower. This is where your credit and overall reputation becomes critical. 

Q: Is the market rejecting or accepting more products that do not meet grade?

A. Vendors know their customers. Not everyone can use a lower grade. This is not normal times where you can sell blemished product into a restaurant for food preparation; most all product right now is retail. 

Q: How are credit terms being changed in these volatile times?

A: There are two types of credit risks right now. There are those who, believe it or not, are just taking advantage of a bad situation. They are offering terrible payment terms. Then there are the more honorable… those who say, “we are hurt… can we suspend the current accounts and open a second account, pay the new account down weekly and pay the old account over time?”

As long as I can preserve my PACA rights, I go along with this agreement. It’s amazing that we wholesalers are held to higher standard in this industry, but these people are not. I’m glad to help the more reputable ones. 

Q: If you could make one wish to help your market overall, what would it be?

A: That no one gets ill and we find a vaccine in less than 12-18 months. We put a man on the moon; we need to now move the moon to make this pandemic go away. 

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Stephen Katzman
President/Treasurer
S. Katzman Produce

Q: What items are currently selling and not selling on the market?

A: We simply see overall business way off. People who were shopping for produce 3-5 times a week are now only going out once a week or every 10 days. The lines for social distancing are too long. They can’t buy produce for that long of a time. 

Q: What new buying outlets are being explored/reached?

A: We have not had any new customers contact us. We have had a great deal of new charitable organizations contact us, and we have been helping them. I’m hoping this new program from the USDA will be a help in purchasing some product for these organizations instead of us just donating to them. 

Q: Are prices going up on all or some items? Any items where prices have fallen?

A: Market conditions have stabilized at this point. We just finished up with the Easter and Passover holidays, which helped some. I’m very concerned about business, or lack of thereof for the next few weeks. This could result in over-supply and market decline as we try to move inventory. 

Q: How hard is it to get transportation to and from your market?

A: We had a little issue with inbound trucks, not wanting to come to NYC, but by paying more in freight we were able to overcome it. 

Q: Is the market rejecting or accepting more products that do not meet grade?

A: Better shippers, which make up most of our suppliers, are not sending product open. 

Q: Are suppliers trying to “dump” more items than usual? Are more companies trying to consign items?

A: I don’t have any venders lowering their standards. If anything, they are setting the bar higher. There is no customer for “off” product. 

Q: How are credit terms being changed in these volatile times?

A: Credit is where this market got hurt big time. Our foodservice customers who average 4-6 weeks with us aren’t paying old bills. That is a big hit because it keeps adding to our past due accounts receivableeach week and affecting our cash flow. Shippers still need to be paid on time. 

Q: If you could make one wish to help your market overall, what would it be?

A: The Government needs to step in and make sure the restaurants and foodservice companies pay their old bills with this “free” money they are giving out. Also purchase some product from us to give out to the various organizations requesting food. We aren’t able to just keep donating at these levels. 

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PHILADELPHIA

Tom Kovacevich III
President/COO
T.M. Kovacevich - Philadelphia, Inc.

Q: What items are currently selling and not selling on the market?

A: What has changed for us is that certain items have really picked up in sales while some have lagged. I believe the consumers have a new list in hand, is being directed by their additional home cooking, heightened food safety concerns and a special focus on shelf life.

Q: How hard is it to get transportation to and from your market?

A: This has not been an issue at all.

Q: How are credit terms being changed in these volatile times.

A: We have stepped up our accounts receivable review, we are reaching out and having more conversations with customers under stress, and we are doing our best to respect the difficulty so many are experiencing.

Q: If you could make one wish to help your market overall, what would it be?

A: I would like to see more of the merchants realize the future is in delivery and take on the burden of managing a trucking department. This would offer more service from our market and help those operators grow their business.

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Responses from John Vena Inc. were supplied by the following:

 

Tom Allen
Buyer & Account Manager

 

 

 

 

Jose Flores
Buyer & Account Manager

 

 

 

 

Emily Kohlhas
Director of Marketing

 

 

 

 

 

Kelsey Rose
Customer Support Team Leader

 

 

 

 

 

Dan Vena
Director of Sales & Buying

 

 

 

John Vena
President

 

 


 

Q: What items are currently selling and not selling on the market?

Kelsey Rose: When closures first started to take effect, demand for microgreens, edible flowers, and baby vegetables basically disappeared. It’s been very difficult for our microgreen suppliers to react and keep production going. But we are starting to see demand bounce back in a very small way as restaurants find their rhythm with take-out.

Tom Allen: Almost all pricey items have been affected at least somewhat. Customers aren’t interested in products that are $2-3 per pound and don’t have a strong retail market. For example, Thai guava and baby pineapples are struggling to move.

Emily Kohlhas: Despite the challenges facing small businesses, we have seen independent retailers continue to come into the market and shop. They have taken a hit as consumers flock to box stores in panic-buying mode, but from what we can see, small shop owners are staying open to be there for their communities.

On the foodservice side, restaurants and institutions are still operating at what volumes they can via delivery and take-away. While volumes are off and demand is unpredictable, we haven’t seen a total collapse in any one sector.

Q: What new buying outlets are being explored/reached?

Dan Vena: We are packing a limited line of mixed cases of produce intended for consumers. We’re working with a couple of local retail customers rather than trying to market them directly. It’s a small program for now, but we are committed to helping our retailers expand their offerings and facilitate contact-less shopping.

Q: Are prices going up on all or some items? Any items where prices have fallen?

Jose Flores: In the ethnic markets, demand for items associated with health tonics and teas has been very high. The increased demand combined with supply issues that existed pre-COVID-19 have driven lemongrass, ginger, garlic, turmeric, and Aloe Vera prices up through the roof.

Most other markets have seen a lot of volatility, but it’s been hard to link that to the effects of COVID-19 or predict how they will change from week to week.

Q: Are more companies trying to consign items?

Tom Allen: The growers that were always willing to consign are still sending product open. But those that never did still aren’t. It just depends on the shipper, regardless of the current circumstances.

Q: Is the market rejecting or accepting more products that do not meet grade?

Dan Vena: Our customers really haven’t changed their standards for quality. They can’t really afford to; they still need as much shelf life as possible, especially now. Certainly, our receiving practices and standards are the same; we continue to work with our shippers and to accommodate them as well as we can.

Q: Are suppliers trying to “dump” more items than usual?

Jose Flores: Most shippers these days do at least some business with chain stores. They may have seen some business decline on the foodservice side, but the boom in retail has helped them stay relatively stable, so not many shippers have felt the need to consign or dump on the market.

Q: How is the market able to help producers of foodservice items looking for new markets?

Dan Vena: We’ve been focused on supporting our foodservice distributors as their customers make the switch to take-out and delivery where possible. Demand went stone cold for a couple of weeks, but foodservice customers are slowly coming back.

Volume is radically reduced, but we have maintained some foodservice business for our growers. There are still restaurants and institutions out there supporting their communities, and they need product as much as any retailer.

Q: If you could make one wish to help your market overall, what would it be?

John Vena: I sincerely hope that the merchants and management of the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market, as well as the entire supply chain, pay attention to the lessons from these difficult days.

In our industry, we have learned so much about food safety and risk management. Fighting this crisis is, in some ways, an extension of those best practices. Our supply chains are long and complicated, and the risk of this virus or something like it will always be with us. We must plan for and do the things that keep our workers and customers healthy and safe at all times, not just in times of crisis.

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Mark Levin
CEO
M. Levin & Company, Inc.

Q: What items are currently selling and not selling on the market?

A: The items that are selling quickly are potatoes, onion, bananas and citrus and apples. Other items like grapes, plums, nectarines, and peaches do not seem to be on the top of anyone’s list. As far as vegetables go, lettuce, romaine hearts, cello celery and broccoli and cauliflower are selling well. Other leaf items, just fair.

A lot of customers are now requesting packaged items because of cleanliness. Brussels sprouts and asparagus sales are not quite average.

Q: What new buying outlets are being explored/reached?

A: Home delivery seems to be an area that has taken a big jump forward. The independent supermarkets are doing well because they do not have to go through the chain of command to get things done. They tend to react to the current situation better than most.

Q: How hard is it to get transportation to and from your market?

A: Transportation is not a problem in Philadelphia. We seem to be a hub for major trucking since we have large port operations, and we can get almost anywhere in the mid-Atlantic corridor within hours.

Q: Are prices going up on all or some items? Any items where prices have fallen?

A: Prices were like a roller coaster. When the pandemic started, the stores very quickly overloaded on much merchandise at higher prices. As things started to level off and the consumer realized that produce was readily available, prices began to stabilize but at a little higher price point.

Q: Are more companies trying to consign items?

A: Foodservice companies, not knowing where they stood in the chain of events, started to make calls to relieve themselves of excess inventory. No Schools, No Restaurants, all this self-containment made them very wary about the near future of their businesses.

Q: Is the market rejecting or accepting more products that do not meet grade?

A: With self-isolation being the Big Topic, the trade that buys the less expensive merchandise is not working. So taking in poor quality produce in the long term means more dumping.

Q: Are suppliers trying to “dump” more items than usual?

A: Supply-and-demand is a funny topic in these times. What one person wants, another does not. It is hard to tell. Suppliers only want to dump on wholesalers what they can’t sell, and usually it corresponds at the same time that we also can’t sell it due to over-supply or quality issues.

Q: How is the market able to help producers of foodservice items looking for new markets? 

A: Companies that produce foodservice items may want to reevaluate and see how to convert their items into retail packages whether by over-wrapping or putting in clamshells.

Q: How are credit terms being changed in these volatile times?

A: Credit terms are not the problem….adhering to them is!! Most of the customers want to extend their credit during these times because payment becomes slower — Both in and out.

The problem is… will you have customers that do not survive these trying times? If you push them for payment, you might lose current business, and they would just buy elsewhere and not pay you. If you don’t push for payment, some businesses may not be able to pay and just get deeper into debt. No right answer; it is a Catch-22 situation with no winners!!

Q: If you could make one wish to help your market overall, what would it be?

A: That our market stays virus-free and everyone stays healthy and that business would just go back to normal. Whatever that means.

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JESSUP, MD

Tony Vitrano
President
Tony Vitrano Company

Q: How has this pandemic affected the market overall?

A: The closing of restaurants and schools in Maryland had a huge impact on business on the Jessup market.  A large portion of the market customers are wholesalers and jobbers, whose customer base has completely disappeared. Business could be off anywhere from 20% to 90%, depending on the mix of retail to foodservice. 

The sudden closings left market operators with large amounts of inventory dedicated to foodservice, which could not be easily repositioned to retail.

Collections are obviously down accordingly.

Q: What is the overall atmosphere on the market?

A: Social distancing has changed market operations. It is difficult for salesman to talk on the phone with face masks on, and also difficult to record transactions while wearing gloves.

The entrance booth at the market is no longer collecting gate fees, as the guards no longer can deal with the public or collect cash. Walk-in business in many cases is being discouraged.

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ATLANTA

Andrew Scott
Director of Marketing & Business Development
Nickey Gregory Company

Q: What items are currently selling and not selling on the market?

A: Our business model before the pandemic was heavy into the foodservice sector and foodservice items.  We sell to a large number of broadliners across the Southeast, and when this hit, we were able to flip our model to selling the retail and wholesale sectors.

We were nimble enough to react and started immediately sourcing retail SKUs, mainly bagged items. Foodservice is slowly coming back and that is a great sign.

Q: What new buying outlets are being explored/reached?

A: We do not have any new buying outlets as we continue to purchase from our current vendor base.

Q: How hard is it to get transportation to and from your market?

A: We backhaul our own purchase orders on our company-owned trucks around the Southeast, so we are doing well, especially with LTL. [Nickey Gregory also has operations in Miami]. We also load all of our own trucks outbound. The farther growing regions, such as California, Arizona, Washington and Idaho… we contract with local carriers who drop trailers on our yard. We try to make it as easy as possible for truck drivers, inbound and outbound.

Q: Are prices going up on all or some items? Any items where prices have fallen?

A: California veggies and value-added items are starting to pick up for us, and they are currently in their transition period out West. I would say that pricing is stable-to-weak on many categories.  If there was any demand, we would be experiencing some strong (pricing) markets.

Q: Are more companies trying to consign items?-

A: Yes, versus dumping products in their fields.

Q: Is the market rejecting or accepting more products that do not meet grade?

A: Accepting

Q: Are suppliers trying to “dump” more items than usual? 

A: Yes, and it's very sad for the farmers.  We hate seeing this because with no farmers or product to sell, we are not in business.

Q: How are credit terms being changed in these volatile times?

A: We have had numerous customers, some very large ones, ask to extend their current terms with them. This can really put a pinch in your cash flow, as we like to pay our vendors on time, hence our good ratings.

Q: If you could make one wish to help your market overall, what would it be? –

A: Restaurants need to open and sports need to get started ASAP, especially America's past-time of baseball!

******

The produce wholesaling community serves many crucial purposes in the produce industry. Retailers may restrict their purchasing to a particular size or grade, and the Good Lord does not see fit to have things grow solely to those specifications. So terminal market wholesalers are often the ones to provide growers with the marginal return that makes them profitable.

In the midst of a pandemic — when product grown for one area of the trade suddenly loses its market — these terminal market wholesalers are often the ones with the flexibility to find homes for produce that has suddenly become homeless.

Sometimes, everyone focuses on the more glamorous consumer-facing segments of the trade, but hard and important work often gets done in underappreciated segments. It would be nice if the trade could give a tip of the hat to the important work being done by important players on the wholesale markets of America.




The Future of Foodservice Post COVID-19

Back when she was still with the Culinary Institute of America, Amy Myrdal Miller had been a speaker at the Ideation Fresh Foodservice Forum, an event Co-located with The New York Produce Show and Conference:

Amy Myrdal Miller Of The Culinary Institute Of America to Engage the Industry Toward MyPlate Solutions That Will Increase Sales, Consumption And Public Health

And she has been a columnist for Pundit sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS since she started her own consultancy:

Inside the Mind of a Chef: Thoughts on Seasonal Sourcing

How the ‘Have A Plant’ Movement Could Drive Produce Sales in Foodservice

Chef-Inspired Ideas For Making Vegetables Craveable

Are Plant-Based Burgers Helping Or Hurting The Produce Industry?

What Do Consumers Want In Plant-Forward Bowls?

Opportunities For America’s Most Loved Vegetable

How Campus Dining Is Helping Change Culinary Practices

Challenges Of Using Produce In Volume Foodservice

Introducing New Produce To Foodservice: The Chef’s View

Introducing New Produce Items To Foodservice

Developing New Menu Items

Restaurant Trends for 2019

Flavors of Produce: What’s Trending Now?

Telling A Local Story In A Global World

Can Retailers Create Wealth From Health?

The Power Of Potatoes

Where Do Great Flavors Come From?

Now we asked Amy to brainstorm what the future holds for the foodservice industry, and she reached out to many of the top thinkers in the field to give us some thoughts on this important issue:

Amy Myrdal Miller
Farmer's Daughter Consulting, Inc.
President
Carmichael, California

Nowadays the entire foodservice industry is obsessed with the future. When will we be able to resume “business as usual”, or will we never return to the old way of doing business? What will our customers want when they return to us, or will they return to us? Will they seek comfort and value, or will they strive to order more healthful offerings? I sought answers to these questions and more from a variety of sources and industry experts.

What has been the Employment Impact of COVID-19?

The restaurant industry employs 10% of the nationwide workforce, providing approximately 15.6 million jobs. In March, the industry lost 3 million jobs or a fifth of its workforce. As we move through spring and into summer, the industry will likely be forced to continue to shrink the size of its workforce. The largest economic impact will be with independent restaurants, many that may never open again.

How are foodservice operations changing how they do business?

Service models and safety measures are evolving quickly. Many in the industry have already pointed out that if you’ve never had a delivery or take-out business, it’s hard to develop one during a crisis. Fine dining restaurants have been hit the hardest in terms of traffic, while quick service restaurants (QSR) are doing best at maintaining some revenue, especially ones that responded quickly to consumer concerns about safety and offered new services like contactless drive thru, sealed pizza boxes and other delivery containers.

What will bring people back to restaurants?

Pew Research Center data show that nearly 50% of consumers expect the outbreak to be a major threat to their financial health, which has far-reaching implications for the recovery of hospitality, an industry dependent largely on disposable income. NPR reported on April 1 that President Trump is calling on Congress to restore tax deductions for business meals and entertainment to help support the recovery of the restaurant industry post-COVID-19. This may prompt businesses to support dining in restaurants, but how individuals will spend their money is unknown at this point as we navigate this crisis that is affecting financial health as much as personal health.

How will consumer eating habits change post COVID-19?

“My feeling is that there will be the same interest in healthful menu options as in the past,” says Ron DeSantis, Certified Master Chef and Principal Advisor at CulinaryNxt, a culinary services consulting firm. “There will be some initial talk about healthy, but habits are hard to break. My sense is that after a short period of hesitation to visit public foodservice operations, people will be ready to move on and celebrate. Celebration means eating favorite foods, drinking favorite beverages, and in many cases overindulging in both. Those individuals who normally choose healthy menu options will continue to do so, and those that don’t won’t.”

Colleen McClellan, Director of Client Solutions at Datassential believes that post COVID-19 a larger share of consumers may be interested in healthful eating. “Our tracking data suggest that consumers are currently turning to comfort foods, baking and snacking more, and stress eating. There might be some weight gain during this time that consumers will seek to lose,” says McClellan, thereby driving interest in ‘better-for-you’ menu options.

Ken Toong, Executive Director Auxiliary Enterprises for the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is confident interest in healthy eating from his students will continue to be strong. “We noticed during the current COVID-19 pandemic that our make-to-order salad concept is one of the most popular stations in our major retail outlet. Our students feel that greens, will nourish the body and further protect against disease and infection. They are driven to eat a delicious meal that provides a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, and this has become a comfort food for the mind and body.”

Other industry leaders are also confident produce, especially leafy greens will grow in popularity post COVID-19. “We see a distinct possibility that longer term trends toward healthy, good-for-you, plant-forward dining will accelerate as a result of COVID-19,” says Ephi Eyal, president of Hinoman USA, which produces Mankai, the world’s smallest green leafy vegetable. “We believe that our super tiny, mighty green can support consumers’ transition from perceived health to real, science-backed, health benefits without sacrificing taste and convenience.”

Chef Dan Coudreaut, Managing Director at Coudreaut & Associates and former VP of Culinary Innovation at McDonald’s, asserts that healthful eating among the general public is a behavior with staying power. “I believe that eating in a more balanced and mindful way has becoming part of our culture and is a customer behavior,” says Chef Dan. “Freshness, food credibility, and clean label are all strengths for the produce industry.”

Maeve Webster, President of Menu Matters, is even more optimistic about the future of healthy eating in restaurants. “I believe the interest in healthy foods will continue and could even rise. I think there's going to be an increased focus on functional foods, specifically those focused on immunity, stress reduction, sleep, and mood enhancement. After months of fear about catching a disease, I think it will significantly accelerate interest in food as medicine and a way to ensure you are as healthy as possible to withstand future issues.” This presents a powerful opportunity for produce marketers to play up the science-backed functional benefits of produce.

Deanne Brandstetter, the VP of Nutrition and Wellness for Compass Group, North America, offers sage advice on not taking claims too far. “I think post COVID-19 guests will be obsessed with staying healthy and maintaining a strong immune system. Of course, that means they may more easily fall prey to snake-oil type ‘immune-boosting’ claims for specific foods and menu items. There is an opportunity though to promote healthful menu offerings, as part of a package that also focuses on overt food safety and sanitation practices.” Restaurants will need to make safety and sanitation practices visible while produce industry leaders will need to ensure that foodservice operators as well as consumers know and trust that produce is safe.

Erin Kappelhof, Managing Partner at Eat Well Global, a nutrition communication firm agrees that food safety will be a priority for consumers. "I think the perception of ‘healthful’ will change, and some consumers will be more concerned with food safety, hygiene, and sourcing than pre-COVID-19." Erin’s prediction may mean the produce industry needs enhanced messaging to support the safety of produce grown outside of the U.S.

Jeff Miller, president of Cutting Edge Innovation, a foodservice sales, business development, and strategy firm, reminds all of us of the number one reason why we choose the foods we do. “At restaurants, diners will continue to be concerned primarily with taste. That doesn’t mean diners will only seek out indulgence and comfort food. It presents the challenge to restaurants that has always been the challenge —creating healthy options that are irresistible.” Fresh, colorful, crunchy, creamy, craveable, nutrient-rich produce can be part of the solution that challenge!

******

The big issue, of course, is that we are not actually sure there will be a Post-COVID-19 world… or when such a world might come about… or what it will look like. We do have flu shots, but millions die of the flu. We still do not have immunizations against AIDS, though we have very effective treatments.

The problem now is that though restaurants are opening up, it is not at all clear they can be profitable with patrons sitting at every other table or otherwise maintaining social distance.

So, the real question may be two-fold: First, will government accept that there is risk, and people have the right to make choices? So social spacing will be recommended, but not required. Second, will people who are not in high-risk age groups be willing to socialize as before, which might require them to self-isolate from their own parents or grandparents?

We can’t be sure of this yet, and the answers probably depend on things like the availability of free testing etc., so a teenager can go out and socialize and get a quick test before he or she goes to visit grandma.

Many thanks to Amy Myrdal Miller for brainstorming this with us.

 

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