Can Retailers Create Wealth From Health?

Originally printed in the October 2018 issue of Produce Business.

Furthering the dialogue of promoting the industry’s greatest weapon.

Given the public’s seemingly boundless enthusiasm for healthier lifestyles, consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables should be on the rise. Yet, consumers still don’t eat 5 A Day, the original recommendation of the Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH). In fact, “per capita fruit and vegetable consumption (excluding fried potatoes) declined 5 percent through 2014, for an average of 1.68 cups per day,” acccording the National Fruit & Vegetable Alliance, a coalition of public and private partners working to increase nationwide access to all forms of fruit and vegetables. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 12.2 percent of adults meet the daily fruit intake recommendation, and 9.3 percent of adults meet the daily vegetable intake recommendation.

Proactive chains such as Whole Foods Market, Sprouts, Hy-Vee, Lucky’s Market, The Fresh Market and Coborn’s are often mentioned by sources in this article as stand-out examples promoting the wellness message in their produce departments. Do midscale and discount retailers have the same commitment to their customers, especially given the fact price is often cited as a barrier to healthier eating?

Mike Roberts, director of produce operations for Harps Food Stores, in Springdale, AR, says retailers do have a duty to promote healthy eating. Harps, which operates 87 stores in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri, has experienced success participating in programs, including the Double Up Food Bucks program, which is part of the government’s Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program that encourages SNAP participants to buy fresh produce.

Participating in Produce for Kids programs, which educate consumers about healthy eating, has increased sales for Harps and provides healthy recipes to help families and children eat better. “It’s up to us to change the eating habits of our customers,” says Roberts. “If we as retailers continue to encourage and educate our customers on the benefits of healthier eating, eventually we will move the needle even more, and we will see an increase in produce consumption in the next few years.” Though Roberts doesn’t expect consumption to post double-digit growth, he foresees the next decade will bring increases of 5 percent to 7 percent.

Kathy Means, vice president of demand creation and consumer affairs for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, DE, says retailers need to make a business case for healthier offerings. “The key is that businesses like supermarkets do serve their community. But they are businesses; it’s not just about being altruistic. The bottom line is that if someone is sick and can’t work, they can’t spend. It behooves retailers to keep their customers healthy, so they can continue to shop at their stores.”

However, Means is skeptical that the health message alone will raise fresh fruit and vegetable consumption. “Research says don’t abandon health as a message, but I’m not sold yet that health alone will make a significant change in consumption. Instead, we need to talk more about how produce makes us feel,” she says.

“It’s not food as medicine, but how produce prepared in a dish, for example, reminds us of the holidays at grandma’s. It’s about broadening how we see produce fit into people’s lives, not just about diet. Convenience products that make it easy to eat more fruits and vegetables are one way. Varietals are another. It’s not that one apple, for example, tastes better than another. It’s that it tastes different. The more variety, the more chance you have of meeting people’s taste preferences,” explains Means.

Retail veteran Mike O’Brien, who is now vice president of sales and marketing for Monterey Mushrooms, Inc., in Watsonville, CA, agrees promotions about the healthy attributes of produce should make business sense. “Retailers are proud of produce and want to grow consumption for altruistic reasons and for profitabilty.”

O’Brien points to the Baby Boomers and Millennials as prime marketing targets. “The Baby Boomers possess the income to purchase what they want, which provides an opportunity for produce.

“Another opportunity is Millennials’ growing disposable incomes combined with that generation being more health-conscious than other generations,” he says.

Increasing produce consumption is really not a matter of health promotion, says Dick Spezzano, president of Spezzano Consulting Services, Monrovia, CA, and a former vice president of produce at Vons. “I think you would be best served to tell the customer how easy, affordable and fun produce is.”

Sometimes there is an intimidation factor and, as a result, Spezzano says consumers make cooking with produce harder than it has to be. “Today’s Millennials are not as well-trained. They grew up on their own because mom was working. You can prepare a meal in 20 minutes; it doesn’t have to be two-and-a-half-hours.”

Spezzano says when it comes to health marketing, Millennials are the key demographic. “Social media is where you need to make that push. It’s the Millennials that you need to market to with health messaging,” says Spezzano, who points out that a lot of retailers have a director of social media and three or four people working for that person. “I bet 5 or 10 years ago, it was probably an intern-type job.”

Informing Millennials also provides a trickle-down effect to the Baby Boomers, who are likely to get frequent health messaging from their doctors and children.


In its U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends 2018 report, the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) defined eating well to include meeting one’s needs, pleasures and values through food experiences that deliver health, taste or discovery, and mindful connections that enrich lives.

‘Consumers increasingly are integrating food as medicine, and that presents a huge opportunity for produce.’

– Anne-Marie Roerink 210Analytics

A high percentage of respondents to the FMI survey list high-quality fresh fruits and vegetables as the most important attributes for selecting a primary store, and 74 percent name great product selection and variety. The retailer also can provide extras such as instructional videos, recipe demos and product tastings to go beyond just moving fruits and vegetables from the display into the cart.

The report notes: “Food retailers are uniquely positioned to be a resource in helping shoppers’ eating-well journeys by offering knowledge, support, inspiration and advice.” A majority of those surveyed say their primary store is on their side for helping them stay healthy, and cite affordable products, healthier choices and greater selection as top priorities.

The 2018 SmartFood Choices survey sponsored by the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, DC, found shoppers define better-for-you foods as being prepared healthfully and having higher nutritional value. “Tips in the produce department on preparation methods that help preserve health and nutrition properties are a great way to educate shoppers on how to incorporate produce into their daily meal plans,” suggests Mary Coppola, senior director, marketing and communications.

“Consumers increasingly are integrating food as medicine, and that presents a huge opportunity for produce,” says Anne-Marie Roerink, 210Analytics LLC, San Antonio, and a consultant on the SmartFood survey. “Many retailers highlight specific health benefits, such as vitamin types, antioxidants or fiber content in-store, or tie these properties to specific health benefits. A fresh garlic display at Lowe’s Foods in the Carolinas, for example, calls out that ‘garlic contains allicin, which has potent medicinal properties. It is also known to be a powerful natural antibiotic.’ ”


“Everybody knows fruits and vegetables are good for them, but they don’t appreciate just how good they are,” says Amy Myrdal Miller, RDN, Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Carmichael, CA. “This results in part from the lack of strong branding and health messaging in fresh produce. Messages can be as simple as promoting avocados for better absorption of certain vitamins. Or strengthening partnerships with the pharmacy so that a customer who needs high blood pressure medication, for example, would be sent to the produce department for potassium-rich vegetables and fruits.”

Point-of-sale material offered by Orlando, FL-based Produce for Kids shows shoppers the health benefits of produce and directs them to websites to show them healthy ways to prepare food. In the University of Arkansas Medical Science’s WISE program, which promotes smart eating for children, Harps Food Stores’ Roberts says his two participating stores saw increased sales of green beans, cucumbers, summer squash, peaches and watermelon. Roberts says the program will be expanded to more Harps stores.

Hy-Vee, based in West Des Moines, IA, sets a new standard for marketing health. The company recently opened Hy-Vee HealthMarket, a health-focused brand with a smaller footprint. “The Hy-Vee HealthMarket produce section is about a third of the size of a traditional Hy-Vee store and carries about half the number of varieties as a full-size store but offers a tremendous selection for quick, healthy choices that complement any meal or snack on-the-go,” explains Amy A. McCoy, director, communications. “Our 300 or so produce items represent the best in seasonal, organic and local. The Hy-Vee HealthMarket offers an assortment of value-added produce items and also has a large Short Cuts section, where customers can buy pre-cut, pre-washed and pre-packaged produce items.”


“Everything we do in produce at ShopRite always is about health and wellness; what has changed is how we go to market with the message,” says Derrick Jenkins, vice president, produce and floral, Wakefern, Keasbey, NJ. “Demand for high-quality organic products and seasonal locally grown produce, for example, continues to spiral upward. We’re also carrying more club items and convenience products such as cut-fruit and vegetables in both the conventional and organic categories.

“We create sophisticated social media and advertising campaigns to reach our customers with a 360-degree approach that includes promotion on our social pages, in our circulars and stores with destination signage, plus videos on our website about fruit and produce usage in a fun and entertaining way,” explains Jenkins.

Jenkins acknowledges customers want products that are quick, easy and ready to eat. “Some ShopRite stores feature a refrigerated cart with all the ingredients for custom ‘meal kits’ using in-store recipes created by corporate chefs and approved by store dietitians. Customers can purchase the ingredients for an entire meal, including prepped fresh vegetables, while watching a video showing them how to cook the meal.”

“We also partner with our corporate health and wellness team, including in-store dietitians covering about 140 of our stores in the tri-state area, and they educate our shoppers about produce through department tours, in-store demonstrations, recipes, classes videos and social media posts.


In today’s society, consumers are bombarded with food messages that can be conflicting. Documentaries that consumers are likely to watch have generated debate in recent years. Those that support a particular point of view may not tell a scientifically balanced story, causing concern and confusion. Forks over Knives (2011) advocates for a plant-based diet. GMO OMG (2013) warns against genetic engineering. Food Choices (2016) explores a sustainable food supply and What the Health (2017) cautions viewers about advice from leading health organizations.

“This is a challenging time because consumers no longer trust the fundamentals of science, and they also want to take charge of their health decisions,” says Dr. David Katz, director, Yale University Prevention Research Center, Griffin Hospital, Derby, CT, and author. “So they shop and eat based on opinions they hear rather than sticking with the scientifically proven basics about diet. We need to help them understand that simple actions like eating a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables is good for health and good for the planet.”

In instances like this, the supermarket dietitian serves as a valuable resource for helping answer shopper questions and reassuring them of the safety of the fresh produce supply.


United’s 2018 SmartFood Choices study shows 38 percent of shoppers cite “healthful eating costs too much,” as a major barrier, and an additional 37 percent cite it as a minor barrier.

“In lower income areas, people often try to stretch their money for the whole month,” says Jenkins. “By offering customers the widest range of vegetables and fruits at the best prices available, we can help them make purchases that fit their budget and lifestyle.”

Spezzano agrees price can be an inhibitor to produce purchases for some consumers.

“Probably 80 pecent of the U.S. population understands that produce is healthy, but for some, it’s unaffordable, and there are issues with perishability,” he says. “They can’t consume the produce fast enough.”

Spezzano is quick to point out, however, that pricing can be comparable to some of America’s favorite snacks. “Apples and grapes are just as econominal as potato chips and better for you.”


Many retailers have learned the hard way that customers are notoriously inconsistent, saying one thing and acting completely differently. In the 2017 International Food Information Council (IFIC) Survey on consumers and health, respondents described being healthy as having few or no health problems, followed by eating a healthy diet with foods rich in nutrients and free from artificial ingredients. But when asked about purchase drivers, consumers name taste, price and familiarity as more influential than health. The takeaway for retailers? Appealing displays, attractive pricing and opportunities for shoppers to taste new fruits and vegetables.

“Now more than ever, it’s important to market fruits and vegetables for sensory appeal and health together,” observes RJ Harvey, RDN, global marketing manager, Potatoes USA, Denver. “We did ourselves a disservice by marketing them separately because it led consumers to believe that nutritious food is not tasty. We need to get buy-in with the senses and then tell the healthy message.”

Monterey Mushrooms’ O’Brien agrees. “Don’t make produce medicine,” he says. “Provide great tasting fruits and vegetables at respectable prices. Top it off by offering healthy solutions, including recipes and convenience.”


If produce consumption trends are to grow in any meaningful way, all eating occasions must be in the marketers’ bulls-eye. Breakfast commonly is referred to as the most important meal of the day, but only 18 percent of breakfasts include fruit and less than 6 percent include vegetables, according to the Produce for Better Health Foundation’s State of the Plate 2015 Study on America’s Consumption of Fruit and Vegetables. Shoppers know that health means fruit at breakfast. “In our 2018 SmartFood Choices study, shoppers name increased fresh produce consumption as the No. 1 way to eat a better-for-you breakfast,” says United Fresh’s Coppola.

‘Don’t make produce medicine. Provide great tasting fruits and vegetables at respectable prices. Top it off by offering healthy solutions, including recipes and convenience.’

– Mike O’Brien Monterey Mushrooms

Coppola notes the report also names fresh fruit, followed by fresh vegetables, as the top way to improve snacking. “When promoting snacking, be sure to consider convenience and portability in terms of fresh produce items that can be eaten on the go. Also, look for creative pairings with other foods, such as proteins or nuts.”

Beverages present a significant opportunity, particularly refrigerated cold-pressed juices and fruit and vegetable smoothies sold in produce. “We found 80 percent of consumers aim to reduce their intake of sugary beverages, while 45 percent make their own fruit or veggie smoothies, and 41 percent buy bottled produce-based drinks,” says Coppola.

Keep in mind that dinner still matters, particularly for families. “I encourage people to add one more family meal in per week, with one more serving of fruits or vegetables in a day,” advises Shari Steinbach, RDN, former health and wellness nutrition manager for supercenter chain Meijer, and currently nutrition and culinary consultant, Shari Steinbach & Associates, both of Grand Rapids, MI. “September’s Family Meals Month can help move the needle. The more meals families eat at home, the more sales supermarkets will see, and social media is a great tool to engage consumers and promote healthy mealtime ideas.”


Similar to fashion, health and diet trends evolve every few years as consumers seek the next superfood or best way to trim down. Low-carb represents one such driving force today in the form of the Paleo, Keto and Whole30 diets. Another is gluten-free. The bad news is that many popular diets unfairly demonize starchy foods. But the good news for retailers is shoppers may flock to the produce department to seek out grain alternatives.

‘Consumers want ease. One of the biggest reasons for a customer to be unsatisfied with a product is the amount of prep work required.’

– Jacob Shafer Mann Packing

Produce companies are ready with innovative new product lines. Mann Packing, Salinas, CA, is among several suppliers offering a broad range of vegetable “rice” and “noodle” products. “Industry research shows that a growing number of consumers will carb-swap in favor of fresh vegetables,” says Jacob Shafer, senior marketing and communications specialist. “We recently launched a Veggie Noodles & Rice line with fresh-cut vegetables that are distinctively shaped, washed, ready to cook and versatile.”

Shafer points out the importance of marrying health with convenience. “Most of all, consumers want ease. One of the biggest reasons for a customer to be unsatisfied with a product is the amount of prep work required.” Mann’s line of Nourish Bowls allows consumers to create healthy, warm, single-serve meals with fresh veggies and sauces that are ready in less than five minutes.


PBH recently piloted a project that encourages cross-marketing produce with nutrient-rich foods from other parts of the store. Jewel-Osco’s pairing of California Walnuts with Stemilt apples included merchandising walnuts in the produce department, increasing signage, providing recipe cards, creating a demo contest between stores, awarding a prize for best display and partnering with store dietitians.

A pilot at Minnesota-based Coborn’s involved a month-long promotion of blueberries and California Walnuts, with a display contest, recipe cards, social media outreach, dietitian programming and in-store demos. Schnucks, based in St. Louis, celebrated back-to-school with healthy “bus stops” throughout the store, including two sponsored by PBH that paired California Walnuts with blueberries and Duda celery with StarKist tuna. The initiative was covered by the local television station and incorporated into the chain’s shopper magazine. “Involvement of the entire store is a key success factor, with the produce department driving execution,” says Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, president and chief executive for PBH.

Although often housed in different business and marketing “silos,” the produce and prepared foods departments can work toward the common goal of boosting health through fruit and vegetable consumption. At its Napa, CA, campus, the Culinary Institute of America invites retail foodservice leaders to its Appetites + Innovation forum to talk about shaping the future in a way that speaks to consumer desires for health and convenience.

“In addition to culinary discussions and demos, we educate chefs from the prepared foods department on how to advocate for change with supermarket chain executives,” explains Jacqueline Chi, director, programs and special projects, Culinary Institute of America at Copia.

Food consumption data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) shows cross-promotions can boost produce consumption. “The diets of adults who eat pasta, for example, are associated with higher daily consumption of vegetables,” says Diane Welland, RDN, spokesperson, National Pasta Association, Washington, DC. “One way to increase the intake of vegetables — not just tomatoes or peppers but also others — is to pair with a familiar food such as pasta. Also, try a different ethnic twist or add plenty of fresh herbs to create new flavor combinations.”


“Retailers should curate their assortment based on their shopper’s needs and wants,” suggests 210Analytics’ Roerink. “The Smartfood study confirmed one size fits nobody. Produce and its marketing need to be tailored to the store audience.”

United Fresh’s Coppola suggests “retailers can target shoppers who are slightly less devoted from time, effort and price points of view, but still would like to make better-for-you choices. These shoppers take a more ‘common sense’ approach to healthy eating and fresh produce fits beautifully into that kind of thinking. Retailers can be the helping hand by pointing out health benefits more clearly, and enticing these shoppers to purchase fresh produce just one more time that month or week.”

Questioning whether retailers can create wealth by marketing the benefits of fruits and vegetables undoubtedly will continue. Although the health message is likely to resonate with many consumers, it’s not likely that all retailers will invest in promoting wellness in their produce departments if it doesn’t connect with their customers.

“The marketplace dictates who will buy produce all the time, and there are a lot of ways to get people to buy more,” says Spezzano. “But it’s a free country; you can’t force them.”

Discovering the optimum health messaging may take time, tweaking and more study.

“It’s not about abandoning the health message; it’s about augmenting it,” says Means of PMA. “It’s the idea of integrated marketing and we’ve been doing new research in this area.”

Carol Bareuther and Doug Ohlemeier contributed to this article.


We invite the industry to continue this conversation with an open forum in the pages of Produce Business. Your comments, sent to, will be published in subsequent issues of the magazine.