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PBH’s Goal To Double Produce Consumption: Admirable, Possibly Achievable If A Well-studied, Controlled Plan And Long-term Approach Are Initiated

Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, President and CEO of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, is a terrific person and inspiring leader. We’ve been fortunate to have her speak as a panelist at last year’s Ideation Fresh Foodservice Forum, which is annually co-located with The New York Produce Show and Conference and is dedicated to helping the foodservice industry move toward the USDA goal of half a plate dedicated to fruits and vegetables.

Wendy has now indicated that the Foundation may promote a goal of doubling produce consumption.  It’s big, it’s bold, it will inspire cooperation… but we hope she will be even more courageous and, instead of just making a broad statement for doubled consumption throughout the country, begin a well-studied long-term program with the goal of doubling produce consumption in, say, Columbus, Ohio. Why Columbus? Well, it doesn’t actually have to be Columbus, but Columbus just happens to have a reputation as Test Market City, USA.

And what is needed, desperately, is an industry leader who is willing to take the slow, deliberate steps necessary to find out how to succeed.

For many decades, produce industry leadership has recognized that their constituency would like to see produce consumption increased. So, there has been initiative after initiative launched, and we have not the foggiest idea if they ever did anything for consumption.

PMA launched its Eat Brighter program, and we wrote about it here and here. We are now three years in, and some individual companies say they sold more by using the Sesame Street Characters. Others have dropped or deemphasized the program. Others never tried it.

Did Eat Brighter help boost produce consumption? Who knows? How could we possibly know? If consumption did go up, maybe it would have gone up anyway. If it went down, perhaps it would have gone down more without the promotions. The flaw was not the program, nor trying to increase consumption. The flaw was undertaking the program in such a way that success could not possibly be verified.

Back in 2009, PMA, the National Restaurant Association and the International Foodservice Distributors Association launched an initiative to double produce usage in foodservice by 2020. We wrote about it here and here. You’ve heard that “success has many fathers and failure is always an orphan”… Well, the 10-year anniversary is nearly here, and, as best as we can determine, despite high level engagement from the CEOs of all three associations at the launch, the initiative did exactly nothing. Certainly nothing we can verify.

In fact, we really had only the loosest guess of how much produce was consumed via the foodservice channel back in 2009, and our data today is really not any better.

What is needed is an initiative that can address the following issues:

  1. The initiative must be small enough that the industry can fund it adequately to achieve its goal. In other words, the population of Columbus, Ohio, is about 860,000 people. If an effective multi-year campaign to boost consumption will cost $10 a year per capita, the produce industry will have to raise almost $9 million a year to fund the initiative. A challenge to be sure — but conceivable. The US population is about 325 million, so the same $10 per capita means we, as an industry, must raise over $3 billion each year — which is never going to happen.
  2. We need it to be discrete enough that we can identify a control group. If by some chance we discover a group of initiatives that will, in fact, double produce consumption, we need to do so in such a way that this is verifiable, because we are going to need resources beyond the produce industry to roll this out across the country. To merit these resources, we will need to have control groups in comparable cities so we can prove that it is the PBH’s efforts that actually cause the boost in consumption.
  3. We need to do lots of baseline research. Before we start promoting anything, we need to establish clearly what consumption levels are in the test city and control group location. Since the foodservice initiative collapsed in part over an inability to measure consumption, and since foodservice now accounts for the majority of food spending, if you want to boost consumption you cannot ignore these data gaps.
  4. We need to do continuous research. After all, we don’t know how to double produce consumption, so we will continuously be trying things. Is radio working? Or are billboards a better idea? What about sending reps to the school systems, hospitals, prisons? Maybe that is effective? Offering adult education classes? Cooking classes? Giving out cookbooks? We have to keep assessing and changing and we need data to do so.
  5. We need to ask ourselves whether we are aiming for consumption or for sales. In the Jr. Pundit’s school cafeteria, they began an initiative to require every student on the cafeteria line to take a serving of the daily vegetable, whether they wanted it or not. As a result, the school started purchasing more vegetables. Of course, when school administrators saw an enormous increase in food waste, they cancelled the program. Will we be satisfied with getting more produce purchased, or will we actually only accept increased consumption? And if we don’t push on consumption, how likely is it that foundations or the government would care to roll out this initiative.
  6. Clarify the role of fresh, frozen, canned, dried and juice in this initiative. The Produce for Better Health Foundation represents all these categories, but these are different industries. Is the fresh produce industry in the US expected to fund promotion to encourage canned fruit from China or frozen broccoli from Mexico? Will we have accomplished anything if we get children to double apple juice consumption? What if we get every pizzeria in America to switch from canned mushrooms to fresh – is this an accomplishment by our metrics?
  7. We must ensure multi-year funding. Many, many times, initiatives have been launched with great enthusiasm and then peter out as the excitement dies down and the money runs out.
  8. Is the goal to double produce consumption or to get people to replace other foods with produce? In other words, if we get everyone to eat an extra 500 calories a day because they all eat fruit before they go to bed, but the rest of their diet is unchanged, is this a win?
  9. What is the goal financially? Doubling consumption is not a goal without a financial expectation. Does this mean giving out free produce in offices and schools? Or do we mean doubling produce consumption with people purchasing the produce on normal commercial terms?

Changing consumption of produce is a great challenge. We sit writing this in Santiago, Chile, where every morning breakfast comes with strawberry juice. We’ll be heading on to England, where breakfast is served with mushrooms and a grilled tomato. Eating is difficult to change because it is deeply rooted in culture.

Although we have many examples of individual items booming in consumption — say kale — this is mostly a replacement for an already well accepted food. So instead of a side dish of spinach, we get kale.

We have people dramatically changing diets, but usually this is due to changes in circumstance. So impoverished people who had little meat, if they become prosperous, eat more western style, protein-rich diets.

But we have no examples of large numbers of people doubling fresh produce consumption due to education, marketing or anything else.

Which doesn’t mean it can’t be done. But to run into a national program to accomplish something we have no idea how to accomplish, without baseline research, control groups, multi-year funding, etc. … this all guarantees the kind of failure all previous initiatives have known.

Let’s hope industry leaders help guide Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak and PBH to do the difficult work ahead to actually boost consumption and heed the lessons of countless industry efforts that have wasted money and time and accomplished nothing.

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