(from left to right) Meredith Myers, U.S. Potato Board public relations manager, chats with Shelley Balanko, The Hartman Group, and Chris Wada of Wada Farms Marketing Group after Balanko’s presentation.
(from left to right) Meredith Myers, U.S. Potato Board public relations manager, chats with Shelley Balanko, The Hartman Group, and Chris Wada of Wada Farms Marketing Group after Balanko’s presentation.

SAN ANTONIO — Since “Leave It to Beaver” debuted in 1957, meal consumption patterns have changed 180 degrees, and with them the definition of quality.

No longer do the likes of the Cleaver family sit down to eat a traditional dinner, said Shelley Balanko, senior vice president of business development for The Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash. Instead, today’s consumers are nearly as likely to snack as sit down, and they frequently eat alone.

Back in the 1950s, quality was defined as a very consistent, manufactured product. Food and food consumption today is more of a culture, and consumers seek items that are fresh, healthful, locally sourced, sustainably produced and that may elicit feelings of excitement and adventure.

These are but a few of the changing consumer demographics Balanko provided at a fresh-market break-out session during the Potato Expo, Jan. 9.

She also encouraged grower-shippers in the audience to work with retail partners to meet changing consumer expectations with cooking demonstrations, point-of-purchase recipes, creative merchandising and environmentally friendly packaging, among other activities.

For Mike Carter, chief executive officer of Bushmans’ Inc., Rosholt, Wis., presentations such as these serve grower-shippers in two ways.

“We have a pretty good gut reaction what the consumer wants,” he said. “Here experts are looking down the road at trends. I think it solidifies what our thoughts may have been, but it’s also really good food for thought on nuances we didn’t consider.”

Until the 1980s, consumers ate to fuel their bodies. Since then, it’s shifted so that about 40 percent of food is eaten for the experience, Balanko said.

As a result, “consumers are becoming the driver,” she said.

Before, they may have sought Kraft Singles because of the consistency and convenience. Instead, many of today’s consumers prefer farmstead cheeses because of perceived freshness, local production, seasonality and exciting new flavors.

Consumers also are seeking high-fiber foods, with 57% ranking it as a top requirement in a recent survey. The same survey showed at least 30% of consumers have purchased a gluten-free product in the past three months, believing it aids digestion.

Both of these trends offer opportunities to the potato industry, since the tuber is naturally high in fiber and gluten-free, Balanko said.

Today’s consumer also is interested in global cuisine.

“They’re letting go of some of the more traditional favorites and going to more adventurous foods,” she said.

Again, Balanko said potatoes lend themselves to the trend, but consumers may need to be provided with inspiration through recipes or demonstrations.

Because most consumers are connected digitally, social media such as Pinterest and Facebook are inexpensive avenues to plant those seeds, Balanko said.

Since 2012, snacking has accounted for 53% of food consumption, regardless of the consumer’s age.

“Consumers are snacking on everything,” she said. “It could be pasta, it could be a bar. It could be a smoothie.”

And snacking isn’t just limited to the late afternoon, either. It’s now an around-the-clock occurrence.

An increasing number of consumers — 47% — are eating alone, whether it’s grabbing a bite at their desk or dining at a restaurant with smartphone or tablet in hand.

In addition, today’s consumers want to get to know the people behind their food, and they want food that’s produced responsibility, both environmentally and socially.

“This is the pathway to trust and repeat purchases,” she said. “They want to get to know their food. Because of the experiential culture, they want to be seduced and romanced by their food experiences.”