Marketing the connection to sell more produce.
Only one food group universally and incontestably is linked to health and longevity – fruits and vegetables. So why, according to Centers for Disease Control, does only one in 10 Americans eat the recommended number of daily servings? Why do ubiquitous programs such as 5 A Day and More Matters barely move the stubborn consumption needle?
Today’s consumers send mixed messages. In the most recent Produce for Better Health Foundation report: Primary Shoppers’ Attitudes and Beliefs Related to Fruit & Vegetable Consumption, 2012-2016, respondents rank eating more vegetables, less sugar and more fruit as factors most important to good health. Yet they say they don’t eat enough, and consumption dropped from 2014 to 2016. The International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation’s 2017 Food and Health Survey found that a majority of consumers say they seek health benefits from what they eat, but almost half can’t identify a single food or nutrient with health benefits.
Meanwhile, the produce industry continues to search for answers. Might the longevity connection resonate with today’s consumers, and what can the produce industry do to market it?
Retailers are on the Front Line
According to Rick Stein, vice president, fresh foods, Food Marketing Institute (FMI), Arlington, VA, produce department staff members play an important role in sharing health messages with older and younger shoppers. “Holistic health is an emerging and growing trend. Our research shows Millennials, in particular, want information about fruits and vegetables, so knowledgeable staff members are critical. Educating consumers with relevant health and wellness information can encourage purchases and build loyalty and trust.”
“Health and wellness, with a focus on produce and fresh, have to be incorporated into a business model for competitive advantage,” says Sue Borra, RD, chief health and wellness officer, FMI. Borra predicts the current trend toward meal kits and solutions offers opportunities to blur lines between departments and encourage staff members to work together on health messaging.
Hannaford Brothers Co., Scarborough, ME, prepares produce associates to answer questions and explain unfamiliar items. The supermarket chain holds regular “huddles” for sharing information and highlighting new programs and items. Its Guiding Stars nutrition navigation program, which helps consumers find the most nutritious foods in the store, shines in the produce department. Dietitian Allison Stowell, RDN, says “through Guiding Stars, nutrition demonstrations, sampling, classes and tours, Hannaford shares health messages with customers and allows them to experience and learn about fresh produce.”
Rick Hogan, produce education director, Hugo’s Family Marketplace, Grand Forks, ND, has become a highly trusted health advisor whose mission is to share his passion about produce to help consumers eat more healthfully. Hogan presents seminars in the local high school, as well as in senior centers, that teach people how to choose and care for fruits and vegetables, noting shoppers will turn away from produce if items spoil at home and have to be thrown away. “I show people that eating fresh produce can be less expensive than snack foods, and that’s before considering the cost of medical care, doctor visits and medicines for people who don’t have a healthy diet.”
With the abundance of positive messages about produce and longevity, retailers can’t go wrong promoting fresh fruits and vegetables to their customers. “Messages about produce and longevity are making their way to the public, and customers will be making purchasing decisions based on this information,” says Leslie Redmond, PhD, RDN, nutrition communications specialist, California Strawberry Commission, Watsonville, CA. “Retailers can gain the trust and loyalty of their customers by stocking and promoting foods like strawberries because it shows they are invested in their customers’ health and well-being.”
Retailers face the challenge of not being heard when they communicate about health and longevity. Barbara Ruhs, RDN, an Arizona-based supermarket dietitian who works closely with Avocados from Mexico, asserts, “Stores have a lot of message noise. Generic health messages may not have impact because consumers have seen and heard them for years. That’s where subliminal marketing tools from trade associations, such as displays, packaging and the Heart Check logo, can be helpful for educating store personnel and customers at point of purchase.”
“In some chains, retail dietitians create a ‘bridge’ between the pharmacy by promoting produce as part of pharmacy-based customer counseling sessions.”
— Shari Steinbach, Retail Consultant
Supermarket chefs can and should be part of the health marketing team. The Culinary Institute of America’s (CIA’s) Strategic Initiatives Group provides a portfolio of health and wellness initiatives for foodservice professionals through conferences and materials. The CIA encourages a plant-forward style of cooking and eating that emphasizes and celebrates, but is not limited to, plant-based foods. In retail, the CIA’s Appetites + Innovations collaborative and forum convenes senior executives and decision-makers to advance culinary cultures and innovation in prepared foods, grocerants and foodservice located within retail settings. CIA students, including those who accept jobs in supermarkets, learn in their nutrition classes about the health-enhancing characteristics of fruits and vegetables.
The supermarket dietitian can serve as an important ambassador for the produce department. New research by the Alliance for Food and Farming, Watsonville, CA, names dietitians and nutritionists as the most credible sources for information. “In-store dietitians are in a unique position to influence consumer food choices,” says Bil Goldfield, director, corporate communications, Dole Food Company, Westlake Village, CA. “They can provide nutrition consultations, health events, cooking classes, customized store tours and much more. Working with in-store dietitians is an effective way to communicate health and longevity messages to consumers.”
“In some chains, retail dietitians create a ‘bridge’ between the pharmacy by promoting produce as part of pharmacy-based customer counseling sessions,” explains Shari Steinbach, RD, a Grand Rapids, MI-based retail consultant formerly with Meijer. “The pharmacy also is a great place to educate senior shoppers on produce benefits to long-term health.”
“Our produce teammates usually don’t discuss longevity per se with customers because their goal is to make produce look beautiful in order to inspire purchase and enjoyment. They learn via digital training about the care, handling, display and basic nutrition attributes of produce in their department,” says Ellie Wilson, MS, RDN, senior nutritionist, Price Chopper and Market 32, Schenectady, NY. “Supermarket dietitians are ‘super fans’ of the produce department who can bring a variety of resources to the produce team. They help elevate nutrition attributes at the shelf and through sampling and education. Their face-to-face and social media communications focus on health benefits and ways to maximize produce intake, with the central message of more is better across the lifespan.”
“We have a number of initiatives that focus on the health benefits of produce, including our superfoods program highlighting our most nutritious food choices throughout the store, including more than half in produce,” says Kathryn Long, RDN, LDN, healthy living coordinator, Weis Markets, Sunbury, PA. “We post a sign near each item that includes nutritional attributes and a usage tip. We also recently rolled out a program that spotlights foods important to gut health, including sources of fiber such as apples, asparagus, bananas and onions.” In-store dietitians also provide periodic in-services to produce associates, educating them on health and wellness programming being executed in their department so they are able to communicate key messages to shoppers.
Hannaford’s Stowell also notes the value of the supermarket dietitian as a resource to the produce department and to consumers. “Through sampling, recipes and key talking points, we help ensure that the produce department can easily speak to the health and disease prevention benefits of their products.”
“I see a need for more health and nutrition training by dietitians for produce staff and department managers,” says Steinbach. “If produce department personnel provide longevity information to shoppers, along with guidance on selecting, storing and using fruits and veggies, shoppers will feel successful and are more likely to buy those items again. Managers need to buy into the need for their staff to receive education and then engage with shoppers to provide tips in the department, while dietitians need to show that this sort of consumer interaction promotes sales and loyalty.”
The involvement of dietitians has been shown to increase produce sales. In a Blue Zones project in Albert Lea, MN, a dietitian at the local Hy-Vee tagged “longevity foods” throughout the store and offered monthly cooking classes on fish, fruits and vegetables. As customers entered the store, she made sure they were offered shopping lists of healthy foods. “It turned out to be a good business decision,” says National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner, who coined the term Blue Zones for 41 communities in the world that are characterized by longevity. “Monthly sales figures for some 30 items tagged with longevity labels later showed an average increase of 46 percent compared to the previous year.”
Ruhs encourages brands and companies to include the supermarket dietitian in meetings with retail produce personnel. “I would be happy to do an in-service for one or more corporate dietitians, along with produce personnel. Produce folks need to work across all store departments to increase their value and health messages to customers.”
Reputable Resources Help Retailers Spread the Word
Produce departments have access to an abundance of third-party resources that promote long-term health. Dole sits at the intersection of science and produce as the only produce company with a dedicated focus on nutrition education and its effects on wellness and longevity through the Dole Nutrition Institute. “In fact, we created a state-of-the-art research facility specifically to provide the public with scientifically validated information on fruit and vegetable nutrition,” says Goldfield. “When our peer-reviewed research renders fruitful findings on beneficial compounds, we identify for retailers and dietitians any of Dole’s fresh fruit and vegetable products that contain those compounds.”
Trade and commodity organizations offer resources for supermarket dietitians that also can be useful for produce personnel. The Cranberry Institute provides science-based resources and maintains an up-to-date library of research related to cranberries and human health. It also creates infographics, handouts, toolkits, social media posts and other resources. The California Avocado Commission provides retailers with ongoing communication, including health and nutrition information. Its materials (bins, POS, brochures/recipe tear pads, etc.) help improve the appearance of the department and displays. The US Highbush Blueberry Council shares e-blasts, toolkits, infographics, health information and usage tips to supermarket dietitians. The National Watermelon Promotion Board offers educational tools and POS materials to educate customers on both health benefits and choosing the best watermelon.
Most materials do not and cannot talk about longevity. Sloan, of the California Walnut Board and Commission, explains that as a commodity board under a government marketing order and with an affiliation with the American Heart Association, any statement has to be approved by those two bodies. The Hass Avocado Board, whose research and resource efforts are focused on weight management, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular health and healthy living, may use taglines such as good source of fiber, naturally good fats, nutrient-rich and heart-healthy, but may be required to use a disclaimer at POS, such as “while many factors affect heart disease, eating avocados as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk,” says Emiliano Escobedo, executive director, Hass Avocado Board.
Longevity — Adding Years To Life Versus Adding Life To Years
Among industry professionals, longevity increasingly refers to quality of life as well as number of years. Terry Humfeld, executive director, The Cranberry Institute, Carver, MA, defines longevity as resilience and the ability to stay healthy throughout one’s lifespan. Dr. Katz describes longevity as years in life and life in years.Leslie Bonci, RDN, spoesperson, California Prunes, notes the health benefit of prunes help older adults to be “hale not frail.”
“Saying long life says nothing about the quality,” says Sloan of the California Walnut Board and Commission. “We shouldn’t simply aim to add more years. Those years should be characterized by the ability to live and function independently and by being free of commuincable and chronic diseases. That’s why we can say that strawberries help protect against several chornic diseases but cannot say that strawberries increase longevity. We use the term ‘healthy aging’ more than longevity, and our research looks at disease states and quality of life. We do know, however, that populations eating a more plant-centric diet with walnuts, and having a healthy lifestyle, do live longer.