Michigan is arguably the state hit worst by the economic downturn of the past several years and, like the rest of the country, is having a tough time picking back up.

“We were the only state to lose population in the last census,” said Jim Heeren, president of Heeren Bros. Produce, Grand Rapids, Mich. “Hopefully things start improving a little bit.”

Spring brought hope to the company, as graduation parties and Memorial Day get-togethers had Heeren Bros.’ business up late May.

“The poor economy does not help our business due to the high cost of produce versus cheaper junk food alternatives always keeping our sales lower than they should be,” said Todd DeWaard, sales manager for Hudsonville, Mich.-based Superior Sales Inc. “Despite the poor economy, our foodservice sector continues to grow. Consumers are eating out more than ever it appears, according to our sales.”

Heeren said school administrators are taking a closer look at the food being served in their buildings.

“They’re getting rid of all the old vending machines filled with candy,” Heeren said.

Joe Pirrone, president of Mike Pirrone Produce Inc., Mussey, Mich., said schools are not only looking to serve more healthful meals, but that they’re also looking to source more locally grown food.

“It’s not necessarily your state, it could be regionally local or just U.S. instead of Central or South America,” Pirrone said.

Dave Miedema, president of Byron Center, Mich.-based E. Miedema & Sons, said although he has heard a lot of talk about schools looking for more healthful meals to serve students and faculty, that his foodservice business doesn’t yet reflect it.

“Our foodservice business hasn’t increased, but a lot of what we grow goes mainly to restaurants, and that hasn’t been setting the world on fire around here,” Miedema said. “We do some local foodservice around Grand Rapids, and that’s doing fairly well, but it’s not what it was a few years ago.”

Jerry Van Solkema, owner of Van Solkema Produce, Byron Center, said the economy seems to have had little to no effect on his company’s sales, which are similar to years past.

Gene Talsma, president of Hudsonville, Mich.-based Crispheart Produce Inc., said celery is finding a market in fresh-cut opportunities. The Michigan Celery Promotion Co-op Inc., Hudsonville, invested in machinery that can process celery for soup packs and other fresh-cut products.

Pirrone said second to the rising fuel and fertilizer costs on the company’s list of challenges is the general state of the economy.

“People don’t have the money in their pockets to spend,” Pirrone said. “We need to make sure they spend it on food, and the cheapest place you can eat is at home.”

For Mike Pirrone Produce, 75% of its products end up on shelves outside of Michigan. Pirrone said the restaurant industry is still suffering because of the economic downturn, but that the retail market is doing just fine.

Pirrone said he has also noticed a fundamental shift in the way people shop. Pirrone said consumers in the past would go to the store with a specific purchase already in-mind. More recently, consumers have begun shopping once they arrive at the store, making decisions based on pricing, specials and product quality.

Todd Miedema, marketing director and principal in Miedema Produce Inc., Hudsonville, said consumers are looking for ways to use fresh fruits and vegetables in the kitchen.

“People are now in the kitchen with their laptops checking recipes,” Todd Miedema said. “There’s so much information available now, and as a company it’s good to take advantage of that.