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Seasonal Produce Value Moves Into the Spotlight

Seasonal Produce Value Moves Into the Spotlight

In less than three weeks, retailers and produce industry executives will gather in Anaheim, Calif., for the Produce Marketing Association's annual Fresh Summit convention, one of the industry's largest annual gatherings. Inevitably, more than a quarter of the convention's workshop and education sessions are focused on how the economy is impacting business. Although many experts — including Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke — have recently said that the economy is growing again, the recession seems far from over for many, many consumers.

Which brings up a point of concern for produce department managers. Most people understand that increasing consumption of fresh produce is key to a healthy diet. Unfortunately, many shoppers — particularly low-income shoppers — think that eating healthy is expensive.

And they may be on to something. In late 2007, researchers at the University of Washington published a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association indicating that during the two years prior, the price of healthy foods like fresh vegetables, whole grains, fish and lean meats had increased almost 20%, compared with overall price inflation of 5%.

Everyone in the food business knows that 2008 was also a wild year for food prices — with few fresh food categories immune to rising commodity and fuel costs. And while things have calmed down considerably in 2009, many of the most popular fresh produce items in the supermarket have continued to endure rising prices and declining volume sales at retail.

However, these conditions may prove to be fertile ground for a growing trend. Foodies and farmers' market enthusiasts have long known that you're likely to get the freshest and most flavorful produce when you buy it in-season. And, “locavores” often cite the ecological benefits of seasonal produce shopping.

For shoppers watching their budgets, though, the fact that in-season produce is cheaper could also prove to be a big draw, as Fresh Market's Amy Sung points out in this issue's special produce supplement.

Many retailers already highlight all of these benefits of buying in-season. Publix has been running its “At Season's Peak” campaign in stores and on the Web for the past three years, highlighting in-season fruits and vegetables with promotions, marketing campaigns, recipes and short, informative articles.

Programs like this will, of course, dovetail very well with existing local sourcing programs, but the products don't necessarily have to be local. Florida-based Publix regularly features Washington apples in its “At Season's Peak” program, for example.

During the past two years, one key point that PMA has been trying to drive home to its members is that consumers today want a story behind their food — such as the face of a local farmer or a description of a growing region. And highlighting the seasonality of an item is a great way to tell a story while emphasizing value to price-conscious shoppers.

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