December, 2012

Fruits of Thought

Start Now On Increasing Consumption

The one thing we know for sure is that whatever will increase fresh produce consumption, it is not what we, as an industry, are doing now. All our efforts have failed. There is always the ‘amen corner’ for any policy, and they will tell us, with little evidence, that we are on the right track and that all that is required is for us to do what we are doing now, but more so. So if the Produce for Better Health Foundation had a budget 50 times as large, then consumption would be booming.

One problem with this approach is the likelihood of PBH’s budget being increased 50-fold is not too great. More substantively, though, is the question of whether health-based promotions are likely to ever work. The mythology surrounding health-based promotion is very strong, and as we talk to many advocates of such an approach it becomes obvious why this is so. These people — industry executives, media representatives, educators, government officials — are mostly motivated to increase their own consumption of produce in order to be healthier. It is logical for them to think that this approach would be effective with others.

People, however, have this annoying way of being individuals, and extrapolating the experiences of a mostly highly intelligent and well-educated cohort to the general population can be a risky proposition.

For some, it is the angle of approach. Many young people, for example, think themselves invulnerable, so you won’t move the lever on their behavior with health messaging. But as this group is busy focusing on preening for the opposite sex, you can change their behavior rapidly by focusing on messages about looking better. Others are focused on environmental or ethical causes, and one can see their behavior change based on assessments surrounding these issues.

For others, we may have to confront a sad reality — that the health message is not effective for the same reason that admonitions to prudence, sobriety and sexual restraint are not effective with large parts of the populous. We have to recognize that life is filled with many messages on how to be successful. There are large segments of the population that are simply not good at absorbing this information. So they can’t save money or avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancies or avoid drinking to excess. They are not likely to uniquely absorb the messaging regarding fresh produce.

Some of the things that almost surely would help are decidedly long term propositions. Yes, if we develop new produce varieties that are more delicious, can be grown less expensively and are both long-lasting and beautiful, we will probably sell more of the product. There are, unfortunately, many trade-offs in breeding, and such products, even if possible, are many years away.

Advocates of health, especially when intermingled with government bureaucracy, all too often make the best the enemy of the good. So they insist on pushing the idea that a child should be introduced to broccoli, steamed and unadorned, because that is the healthiest of options. More likely, there are gateway experiences to foods, and children who can be enticed to eat broccoli with cheese sauce or spinach with garlic and olive oil may, in the fullness of time, come to appreciate the item in its purest simplicity.

Affiliating with key moments in a person’s life is a sure route to consumption. How many people, who never eat turkey, eat it on Thanksgiving? How many people who never put marshmallows on a food eat them melted on sweet potatoes on Thanksgiving? Aligning produce with celebrations... strawberry short cake and ice cream smothered in cut fruit or high-end events, fine Champagne and berries in upscale venues... these are all ways of planting the idea that fruits and vegetables are, well, kind of cool. To be more precise, they are ways of planting the idea that people who eat fine berries and sip Cristal are the kind of cool people who the targets of the promotion want to be.

In the short to medium term, the two best hopes for increasing consumption are enhancing convenience and enhancing culinary technique. The industry is making remarkable strides with convenience. New packaging, as much as anything, drives these new products and takes items such as artichokes, traditionally intimidating to consumers, and makes them simple and accessible.

Culinary technique will be more difficult, but can be revolutionary. In the United States, we have lost many of the cooking techniques that our ancestors once knew or that other cultures once knew that can make produce such a treat. We have to rediscover these techniques and create new ones. This way we can make produce more delicious without waiting for breeding programs to bear fruit.

Delicious produce, aligned with meaningful life events, available conveniently with a portal open to allow children to acquire a taste for produce... these are the techniques likely to lead to success in increasing per capita produce consumption. It is a big job, best we get started right away.    pb