New Foundation For Increased Produce Consumption Fraught With Challenges

Jim Prevor - The Fruits of Thought

Originally printed in the September 2022 issue of Produce Business.

The decision to merge the Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH) with the International Fresh Produce Association’s (IFPA) Foundation For Fresh Produce is a prudent one, but leaves open the question of how, or if, the produce industry will boost fresh produce consumption.

The basic problem with most produce industry groups is they are too small. What this means is that a large percentage of their budgets goes to overhead rather than running effective operations.

The obvious link in this merger is Bruce Taylor, who chairs IFPA – the association that resulted from the merger of PMA and United – and has been on the PBH board of trustees for many years. He is an industry advocate and possesses a formidable business mind. It is obvious that, at very least, this merger will eliminate administrative duplication and save the industry money. So the merger is a win.

The additional hope, of course, is that the newly emerged organization will succeed in boosting consumption, and on that point, we can all hope. But, if we are honest, we will acknowledge that a belief that the newly merged foundation will cause noticeable increases in fresh produce consumption is to a large degree a triumph of hope over experience.

It is not that PBH did not do many good things; it certainly did. Personally, we’ve found their research invaluable and hope it will be continued and expanded under the new organization. But, truth be told, the goal of increasing produce consumption has not been achieved by the Produce for Better Health Foundation, the Foundation for Fresh Produce nor by earlier efforts such as United’s old Fresh Approach. In fact, per capita fruit and vegetable consumption has been flat for several decades.

The two biggest problems that must be solved if the new organization is to have success are these:

First: Quite reasonably, many of the companies on the board of PBH are deeply concerned about increasing produce consumption, but they are concerned even more about their own company image. One of the reasons many companies want an executive on the board of PBH is to enhance and sustain their image as an industry good guy. This attitude incentivizes industry engagement. In this case, though, it has had a deleterious effect on the management of these organizations.

Many top executives have called me to express their frustration on issues related to the foundation where they are board members. The problem? They don’t think it wise to express their thoughts publicly because if they are perceived as critical of the industry organization seeking to boost consumption, the reputational cost is higher than the cost of supporting an organization even if in their judgment the organization cannot achieve its goals.

Second: the very nature of all the produce efforts to increase consumption has, for decades, been kind of backwards. The organizations were formed with the best of intentions and did the best they could with the resources they had. This is the opposite of analyzing what effort is required to boost consumption and then securing the resources to execute the plan. In the US, the fresh produce industry is believed to be at least $60 billion in annual sales. One doesn’t have to have great insight into marketing to realize that a budget such as PBH — a bit over $3 million — will find it tough to have a noticeable impact on consumption.

A company such as Coca-Cola will spend more than $4 billion a year in global advertising. So produce just isn’t able to keep up.

If one is given the job of going to the moon, one has to calculate a budget necessary to achieve the goal. There is literally no point in launching a rocket if you don’t have the resources to provide sufficient fuel to get to the moon.

The newly consolidated effort has some specific challenges — notably that PBH promotes not only fresh, but canned, juice, frozen and dried forms of produce — but however these things are resolved, the bigger picture remains:

  • Is the newly merged organization going to develop plans that would boost consumption and then challenge the industry — or others — to provide the necessary resources?
  • Or will the new organization simply provide a forum for companies to wave a flag saying they want to boost consumption and then waste a lot of industry money because the programs are not budgeted at a level sufficient to do that?

It is all very challenging. Remember that increasing consumption also requires increasing production. So if a farmer has 500 acres of a crop and demand for that crop increases by 20 percent, the price will rise and the farmer will prosper. But, to increase consumption, we also have to grow more product! So that farmer with 500 acres may not benefit at all from the increased consumption, so this makes it difficult to get industry support for increased consumption efforts.

If we can establish the health benefits of increased produce consumption, and that we actually have a plan that will work to boost consumption, we can get the support of private foundations and public authorities.

The challenge is not easy… Can we prove that an investment in increased produce consumption will reduce expenditure on Medicare and Medicaid? That would allow the industry to make the case that government investment in increasing produce consumption is actually free. The Medicare budget is about $767 billion a year, so even a small finding — say that increased produce consumption would reduce annual Medicare expenses by, say, 2 percent or over $15 billion a year — would justify substantial investments in increasing produce consumption.

Let us hope the new Foundation focuses on this type of positive change rather than just giving produce companies an opportunity to wave a pro-consumption flag.