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Connecting Growers and Shoppers

This afternoon, I moderated a panel titled "Empowering Retail Staff as Ambassadors for the Grower-Shipper Story" at the Grower-Shipper Learning Center, and was joined by Kim Kirchherr, MS, RD, LDN, CDE, corporate dietitian for Jewel-Osco/SUPERVALU and Doug Riley, assistant vice president of produce operations for Hy-Vee.

Kirchherr told an interesting story during the Q&A portion of the presentation. Basically, a customer recently asked her if it was OK to eat bagged spinach -- more than four years after the E. coli outbreak that devastated the leafy greens industry. That's only one isolated example, but it illustrates a great point. The news that shoppers hear about product recalls generally trickles out in a fragmentary manner, it is sometimes confusing, and often contradictory. Afterward, there is little follow up. The passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act made a few big headlines, but news of other significant developments in recent years, such as the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement and the Produce Traceability Initiative, have been mostly under the radar for shoppers.

This is just one example of how far removed modern consumers are from modern farming. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 30% of Americans lived and worked on farms in the 1920s. Ninety years later, less than 2% of Americans farm for a living. That's a stark shift.

Personally, I think that this is a key driver behind the local food movement. Shoppers want to make a personal connection with growers. But, that connection doesn't necessarily have to with someone farming near their home. Both Hy-Vee and Jewel-Osco are Midwestern companies. During the winter, for example, there simply aren't that many local options for shoppers or produce buyers. But at Hy-Vee, Riley has helped his produce managers make that personal connection by taking them on tours of growers in California. He also spoke about the popularity of meet-and-greet events with growers at Hy-Vee stores. Kirchherr discussed how social media tools such as Facebook have helped her connect directly with shoppers, and how these tools could help growers do the same.