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COVID-19 delays national consumption summit

By
Tim Linden

In January of 2020, the Produce for Better Health Foundation announced its effort to Lead The Change concerning America’s eating habits. In June of 2020, it tried to accelerate that effort, but because of COVID-19, it now expects what it is calling a national consumption summit will not be able to be held until late in 2023.

Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak
Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak

Though anecdotal reports point to more Americans eating healthier, looking for meat alternatives and claiming to want more plant-based foods, data on the consumption of fruits and vegetables doesn’t show that the original plant-based category is gaining devotees. More than a year ago, PBH President and CEO Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak declared that America was in a “consumption crisis” that was impacting culture, society and economy. Consequently, the group set about to more quickly play its role as a convener of what Kapsak called “a multi-sector, solutions-based initiative” that would rely on data to develop strategies that would “truly transform Americans fruit and vegetable consumption behaviors.”

PBH envisioned a three-step approach using research data to determine the share of stomach that fruit and vegetbles controlled; develop a think-tank style coalition of industry, government, academics, health officials, behavioral scientists and other stakeholders  to noodle the issue; and to convene a national consumption summit to create a sophisticated solution for this most complex issue. Survey after survey reveals that people know they should eat healthier, and they want to. They just don’t make the behavioral change.

As America emerges from the pandemic retail produce sales have showed significant gains during this past year. Many more meals were cooked at home as the increased produce sales were most likely caused by a reduction of foodservice sales. There is scant evidence that fruit and vegetable consumption increased. However, that will be determined by the continual research that PBH has and is conducting.

Kapsak said that the pandemic has delayed its efforts and it is now pointing toward the end of 2023 to convene the national consumption summit.

She stands by the original assertion of the PBH board of directors in 2020 that nine out of 10 Americans are not eating enough fruits and vegetables each day, and our nation is suffering because of it. Kapsak said data measuring volume produced and sold as well as consumer research on their eating habits continuously point to a low level of fruit and vegetable consumption. The PBH’s most recent State of the Plate research, released in May of 2021, revealed that over the past 16 years, the frequency in which Americans consume produce has declined by 10 percent. This amounts to a loss of about one fruit or vegetable eating occasion per week.

The most recent State of the Plate also calculated that between 2015 and 2020, fruit, vegetable and juice consumption declined by 3 percent. The report stated, “Within the fruit, vegetable, and juice categories, the most significant contributors have been decreased vegetable consumption frequency (down 16 percent since 2004 and 4 percent in the past five years) and a reduction in juice (down 15 percent since 2004 and 8 percent in the past five years). Fruit eating occasions (excluding juice) grew 10 percent between 2004 and 2020 and 3 percent between 2015 and 2020. Yet, even this growth in whole fruit intake over time has not been enough to overcome the net decline.”

Bil Goldfield, director of global corporate communications and marketing at Dole and the most recent past chair of PBH, did note the contradiction between trends and data. “There has never been a better time to be in produce. Trends toward plant-based eating are rising as is the scientific support that fruit and vegetable consumption is the easiest and best way to maintain health and wellness,” he said.  “Certainly, most people are still not close to meeting minimum levels of consumption, so in that instance we are seeing a consumption crisis. We have still seen growth in many of our product categories, but still given consumer claims of desiring better nutrition growth should be exponential.”

Another PBH Board Member, Stemilt Growers LLC Marketing Director Brianna Shales also noted the concerning consumption trend. “I do believe fruit and vegetable consumption is flat and see this often in various sources of data on eating trends. It’s concerning because fruits and veggies are essential fuel to helping people live healthy, happy lives. The root of the Have a Plant movement (PBH’s marketing campaign) is to transform lifestyles and encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables daily. This is not only important to the future well-being of our society, but also to fruit and vegetable producers.”

Shales is thrilled that PBH is leading the charge on this. “They’ve designed a unique offering to members to help us reach consumers, influencers, and many more stakeholders around the Have a Plant movement and the fruits and vegetables we cultivate,” she said.

She added that the industry should continue investing in PBH’s efforts to reach consumers and make fruits and vegetable consumption simple. “We also have to ensure access, quality, and flavor are all part of our go-to-market strategies so that people can create habits around eating fruits and vegetables,” she said.

She supports efforts to develop lifelong fruit and vegetable eaters when they are young.

Goldfield noted that the produce industry has not been able to increase consumption. “It’s not a lack of desire, but whether its lack of funds due to product margins or a lack of marketing sophistication, the industry has not been able to seize the opportunity to turn a stated consumer desire into behavior change. Repeated exposure and knowledge of products is the best way to bring about those behavior changes,” he said.

He supports PBH’s collaborative strategy to attack this problem, “There is no single entity that leads the charge. Addressing this needs to be a multiple-stakeholder approach coming at it from different flanks.”

He said industry needs to continue to market the benefits and flavors of fruits and vegetables, and applauded PBH for showing leadership and cultivating relations with other stakeholders including registered dieticians, who he called “the trusted voices in this battle.”

Goldfield also advocated that “other stakeholder businesses that see effects of poor nutritional wellness — healthcare, insurance, state and federal govt., etc. — need to come to the table and take on a larger voice in helping change habits.”

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