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Industry Viewpoint: Good healthy eating habits start early

I’m sorry, as much as I wish it could be so, you can’t have locally grown strawberries in Massachusetts in January. That thought occurred to me as I watched a focus group about fresh produce that we conducted recently with millennials at Roche Bros.Six-Block-1

The young people in their 20s and 30s gathered behind a one-way mirror this past June to give us their thoughts on what they know about and want in regard to fresh produce. The sessions were very enlightening and contained some surprises for me. For instance, most of them were not as hung up on having only organic fruits and vegetables in their diets as I thought they would be. They did have many reservations about GMOs but had little knowledge of why they should be concerned. I was surprised that while cost was a factor, it was not a major one in their decision-making process. They seemed willing to pay more for better quality and had a strong desire to try new varieties even if the price per pound was higher. It was very clear that they are looking for convenience when it comes to fresh produce. They want the ability to serve their families healthier alternatives quickly and efficiently.

It was no surprise to me that these young people were passionate about buying locally grown produce. They touted freshness, better quality and the environment as benefits for doing so. The revelation that surprised me most was their lack of knowledge about the seasonality of and growing regions for fresh produce. They had little understanding of why, at certain times of the year, fresh fruits and vegetables need to come from other areas and countries. They asked why we buy apples from New Zealand and navel oranges from South Africa instead of the United States. Many did not realize that when it is spring and summer here, it is fall and winter in the Southern Hemisphere. So if you want grapes in January, you will have to get them from Chile or Peru. The study was a confirmation for me that one of the most significant obstacles in preventing people from getting their recommended daily servings of fresh fruit and veggies is lack of knowledge about and trust in other growing areas.

Our youth may be suffering the most. All of these young people knew that produce is a key to good health and wanted to find ways to eat more. However, they are bombarded daily with messages in the media that push the taste and convenience of processed foods. That combined with their confusion about what to buy when, is creating some negative experiences for them with fresh produce.

There is more that we can do as an industry to overcome that gap in knowledge. For instance, retailers should be doing more in-store to help consumers at the point-of-purchase. Programs and strategies that teach about the seasonality of fresh produce are essential. Better signage, readily available recipes and produce clerks who can explain things in detail are needed. However, there is other information that can be conveyed to encourage greater consumption. Many grocers are employing dieticians to engage shoppers and help them understand the many nutritional benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables. Showing them — right in the produce aisle — that cruciferous veggies are known cancer fighters or that spinach and kale are loaded with iron and calcium can be a powerful motivator to skip the potato chips and have a side of veggies instead.

Several factors work against the goal of eating enough fresh fruits and vegetables. So far, I have focused on the lack of knowledge, but convenience and cost are also barriers. There is much to say about those, but I think the biggest problem is consumers’ ability to commit and sustain a daily and weekly regimen of keeping fresh produce in their diets. It has to become a robust habit and one that is as important as brushing teeth or showering. The reality is that it is just as important or more so for our ultimate health than those activities.

How do good habits like that become second nature? The only way is to repeat the activity over and over again for a long time. If we came into adulthood without them, trying to incorporate them is much harder. Nobody likes the effort it requires to change, but if we are instilled with these values at an early age they become so much a part of our thinking that we cannot live a day without them. So we need to do more to educate parents about the importance of setting the example for their children. Family meals need to be loaded with sides of veggies from all colors of the spectrum and mothers and fathers need to lead the way, eating them to show kids how delicious they really are.

Of course children spend almost a third of their time away from home and in the classroom. We need to encourage schools to be at the forefront of the effort and make sure the meals they serve have plenty of fruits and veggies and that they do not give access to junk food in their lunch rooms or vending machines.

Ultimately it comes back to education. Families and schools have the most influence on what children learn and the lifelong habits they will develop. Our group of millennials all had the desire to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables, but perhaps because those of us who taught them early did not emphasize the importance of doing so, they are now finding it a struggle. We can change that for them and succeeding generations if we adopt a more aggressive and positive approach. It’s no secret that young people today are engaging and getting their information mostly through social media. We need to use these channels effectively to communicate information about fresh produce and its many benefits.  It may be too late to change the habits of older people who suffer from chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes, but we owe it to our youth to make this a priority.

(Tom Murray is the director of produce for Roche Bros. Supermarkets and a member of NEPC's board of directors)