Industry Should Focus On Getting the Poor to Eat More

Jim Prevor - Comments and Analysis

Originally printed in the October 2021 issue of Produce Business.

Consumers indeed make produce a personal decision, and to whatever degree the industry — growers/shippers and retailers — can offer more options, consumers will split up their purchases, and so the new items offered will have some volume. It is also true that some of the new items — better varieties, more convenient cuts, interesting flavor profiles, etc. — may allow for higher margins. What we don’t have much evidence of whether any of this leads to higher overall consumption of fresh produce.

This February, a study was released by Nicholas Ansai, M.P.H., and Edwina A. Wambogo, Ph.D., M.S., M.P.H., R.D., at the National Center for Health Statistics, and it was sobering. Their study is not solely on fresh; it includes canned and frozen as well as 100% juice products. So the fresh produce industry can find ways to boost consumption and sales by encouraging consumers to buy fresh as opposed to frozen and canned, but, still, it was a grim report:

Figure 1. Percentage of adults aged 20 and over who consumed any fruit or vegetables on a given day: United States, 1999–2000 through 2017–2018

1Significant decreasing linear trend.
NOTES: Percentages are based on Food Patterns Equivalents Database food groups.
SOURCE: National Center for Health Statistics, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey,
1999–2000 through 2017–2018.

This report studies just one serving per day, and it shows that there has been a significant decline in consumers who consume even one serving of fruit on a given day. One obvious variable is income, and the report measures fruit and vegetable consumption as it relates to the percentage above or below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL):

Figure 2. Percentage of adults aged 20 and over who consumed fruit on a given day, by income: United States, 2015–2018

1Significant linear increasing trend with increasing income.

Figure 3. Percentage of adults aged 20 and over who consumed vegetables on a given day, by income: United States, 2015–2018

1Significant linear increasing trend with increasing income.
NOTES: FPL is federal poverty level. Percentages are based on Food Patterns Equivalents Database food groups. SOURCE: National Center for Health Statistics, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2015–2018.
Note that on particularly healthy items such as dark greens, the variable between the lowest income and the highest income group is more than 50%. In fact, the only category where the affluent do not eat as much produce as the poor is starchy vegetables, such as potatoes.

Produce is, of course, a business, so when companies work to develop new varieties or new growing techniques, they, understandably, want a return on investment. Now this can come about through higher yields, allowing more product to be produced and sold, or through an appeal to more affluent consumers who are willing and able to pay premium prices. In doing a quick review of Rick Stein’s piece, we see the industry is focusing on problems that mostly involve the affluent shopper:

1) Searching for the perfect piece of fruit
2) More choices than ever
3) Mangos in Minnesota
4) Local
5) Novel varieties
6) Bought a greater variety of fruit and vegetables
7) Value-added products
8) Snackable items
9) Convenience packaging and day parts
10) Omnichannel
11) Online

Of course, the industry should indeed serve the affluent. Car manufacturers do, cruise ship operators do, restaurants do — so must the produce industry. Yet, being in food, surely we have a special responsibility to also do more. Some of this is charity, supporting the local food banks and other other programs. Some of it may be societal.

These charts clearly show that if income is boosted, produce consumption increases. Yet finding a way for the industry to do more and drive consumption of healthier items among the low income population is both an important business opportunity and a moral imperative.