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Shoppers Shouldn't Think of Produce as a Luxury

Shoppers Shouldn't Think of Produce as a Luxury

As reported in this week's Fresh Market section, the Produce for Better Health Foundation recently released a troubling survey of U.S. mothers. It revealed that 60% of moms believe their families are eating too few fruits and vegetables, but, citing cost as a barrier, most of these moms said they're including fewer fruits and vegetables in meals and snacks prepared for their families. Self-reported fruit consumption fell 12% compared with last year's survey, while vegetable consumption fell 6%. (Click here for the story.)

Self-reported dietary recall surveys should always be taken with a grain of salt. According to recent data compiled in the United Fresh Produce Association's quarterly “Fresh Facts on Retail” report, total retail produce volume was down 3.6% in the fourth quarter of 2008 compared with a year earlier. Meanwhile, retail prices were up 6.1%, netting an average 2.3% increase in weekly sales dollars per store.

So, survey respondents are probably overstating how much they've cut back on their produce purchases. But the PBH survey should concern produce department managers, regardless. It indicates that shoppers are getting the message about how eating more produce is a key to a healthy diet, and it indicates that many moms may be wishing that they could include more produce in their families' diets. But it also reveals that many shoppers think that they can't afford to buy more.

As the recession continues to deepen, the attitude that fresh produce is a luxury when families are watching their grocery budget should not be allowed to take root.

Growers and retailers can't do much about the weather, or fertilizer and fuel costs — just three of the factors that make produce prices so volatile. Price increases for the category are expected to continue this year. The consumer price index for fruits and vegetables rose 6.2% in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, and it's projected to rise another 3.5% to 4.5% this year.

But retailers can continue to emphasize great deals on produce items that are in season, and redouble their efforts to teach shoppers to use those items as part of inexpensive meals. In recent months, one-stop meal centers that host all of the ingredients needed to make a quick, inexpensive meal for a family of four have sprung up in supermarkets across the country. These are great concepts — creative cross-merchandising centers that give stressed out shoppers ideas, while emphasizing the local supermarket's role as a solution center, not just a place to buy ingredients.

Unfortunately, these meal centers often don't include produce as part of the solution. And most American consumers still consider meat and poultry to be the key “center plate” components of a meal. In that mindset, fruits and vegetables assume the role of accessories that they know they really should be eating more of, but…

Produce departments don't need to set off on a Quixotic quest to turn America vegetarian, but as the country relearns how to cook, they need to step up their education and demo efforts, or risk being viewed by many shoppers as unaffordable and unnecessary.