Amy McClellan, senior vice president of Martin’s Super Markets and division vice president of retail for SpartanNash, discusses how produce as a snack can be amplified at retail. (Photo by Ashley Nickle)

TUCSON, Ariz. — Industry members came together Jan. 15 at the United Fresh Produce Association’s FreshStart Conference to discuss opportunities to increase produce consumption, especially among children.

“It’s very gratifying to see the number of folks who are here,” said United Fresh president and CEO Tom Stenzel. “It’s expanding. It’s showing a commitment to helping kids become bigger produce consumers.”

Following volunteer leadership committee meetings, attendees heard keynote addresses from Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, and Colleen Lindholz, president of Kroger Health.

Wilson, whose organization represents nearly 4 million students, urged produce suppliers to come to the group with new products and ideas, even if they aren’t sure about how they would be implemented. Sometimes simple changes can have dramatic results; Wilson gave an example from earlier in her career in which an adjustment that didn’t require any additional investment dramatically increased the number of students buying lunch.

“The cook managers had to have three colors of fresh fruits on the tray and three colors of fresh vegetables on that serving line,” Wilson said. “That’s the only thing we did the first year, and we put the high school participation rate to 72%. That’s the only change we made. The food was all the same. We had the same facilities, the same employees.”

Wilson also challenged retailers and schools to work together so that if there’s a featured fruit or vegetable on the lunch line on a given week, retailers can be prepared to talk with shoppers — whose kids might be asking for the item — about how to prepare it, the nutritional benefits and so on.

Lindholz presented on Kroger’s vision for transforming health in the U.S. by helping people to eat better. One piece of the overall plan is the OptUp app that gives shoppers scores for the nutritional value of their grocery basket and shows them slightly healthier options from what they are currently buying. Another element is a robust infrastructure of health professionals at Kroger who are aiming to fill fewer prescriptions and instead direct people to the produce department and to other healthy items.

Kroger’s trove of loyalty card data also presents a big opportunity for the grocer to understand patterns in how people’s purchases correlate with health outcomes so Kroger can intervene by targeting with healthy eating ideas and other assistance the shoppers who need to change their buying behavior to avoid negative health consequences down the road.

Two education tracks — on focused on retail, the other on foodservice — followed the keynotes.

On the retail side, attendees heard from a panel of health professionals engaged in stores and how they are working to get shoppers to eat more produce. A second panel focused on the role of produce in snacking and ways in which produce’s place in the snacking realm can be amplified in stores.

“Out-of-department merchandising, to me ... it’s untapped potential,” said Jeff Cady, director of produce and floral for Tops Friendly Markets and the chairman of the United Fresh Retail-Foodservice Board. “We have the tried-and-true bananas in the cereal aisle and those things, but actually taking the snack and going right where it means something I think is a great idea for sure. Really been trying to fight the front end, where the CPG companies basically own that real estate, and I’ve had those conversations.

“Fortunately, a lot of the CPG companies actually now own healthy brands, so they’re a little more open to conversation, so that’s something where you can piggyback with what their item is, and then maybe you can get some other fresh produce,” Cady said.

He noted that one of the elements he is excited about as far as the opportunity to grow produce consumption in 2020 is that quality has never been better.

“I’ve been in the business a long time, and fruit and vegetables taste better today,” Cady said. “To have a consistent product to sell is only going to help our whole entire cause here with United Fresh.”

The event concluded with a Bid for Kids auction, which raises money for the United Fresh Start Foundation, and the presentation of the Lifetime Achievement Award to Emanuel Lazopoulos.

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