Tom Karst, National Editor
Tom Karst, National Editor

We all want to eat healthy food when we go out to eat, right?

Sadly, no.

“Healthy” is a four letter word for many restaurants because consumers have a knee-jerk reaction against food with that label.

That’s not exactly great news for the fresh produce industry.

The idea that consumers resist “healthy” or “diet” foods has been around for some time.

Consumers — that’s you and me — are more likely to order fries than a side salad at McDonald’s.

We intend to eat fresh and healthy food, but we do something else when it is time to place the order.

Why? Perhaps it is the fact we have been brainwashed by advertising, but the attributes of perceived taste and cost are factors in our decisions.

We want good-tasting, cheap food, and our perception is that “healthy food” or “diet food” can’t deliver the goods.

For example, I shun the no-fat options at the frozen yogurt shop. I don’t want to get cheated with my $4 dish of dreamy decadence.

More evidence of this counterintuitive reality (we love the idea of healthy food but hate the application) is found in this coverage from Ohio’s Columbus Dispatch.

A story cites research from the NPD Group that indicates 70% of diners aren’t willing to pay more for healthful menu items. What’s more, just 9% of patrons say they choose their restaurant based on their desire for good-for-you food.

In this tough marketing environment, the federal menu labeling law could raise the awareness level of the calorie load of indulgent menu items.

Going into effect next year, the law requires restaurants with more than 20 locations to include calorie information on their menus.

With the menu labeling law bearing down on the industry, perhaps the timing is right for the National Restaurant Association to roll out Kids LiveWell.

Participating restaurants must agree to offer, promote and identify through nutrition profiles a selection of menu offerings that meet criteria based on recommendations from scientists and health organizations, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines.

I hate to be skeptical, but I suspect Kids LiveWell will be just another well-intended initiative that eventually dies a quiet death.

Retailers are also doing their part to promote more fresh produce. In that vein, the big news this week from the White House was the unveiling of commitments from retailers to expand access to fresh food to nearly 9.5 million people over the next few years.

Supervalu, Walgreens, Wal-Mart and other retailers have pledged to open or expand more than 1,500 stores in underserved communities.

That’s the idea, anyway.

At the White House event, Supervalu said it plans to open 250 Save-A-Lot stores over the next five years in food deserts, while Walgreens said it plans to offer fruits and vegetables and other healthy items in at least 1,000 stores. Wal-Mart said it will open or expand up to 300 stores by 2016.

The notion that “if you build it, they will come” is the official premise behind the idea of bringing relief to the food desert.

Some say it is not that cut and dried.

A story in The Economist looked at the issue of food deserts, and the author said federal statistics don’t take into account roadside stands and other points of access when calculating “food deserts.” In the rebuke to the administration’s position, The Economist said:

“Open a full-service supermarket in a food desert and shoppers tend to buy the same artery-clogging junk food as before — they just pay less for it. The unpalatable truth seems to be that some Americans simply do not care to eat a balanced diet, while others, increasingly, cannot afford to.

Over the last four years, the price of the healthiest foods has increased at around twice the rate of energy-dense junk food.”

Bryan Silbermann, president of the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, disagrees. He said retailers and store-level employees who connect with their communities can have a hugely positive impact on fresh produce consumption. There is reason for optimism with the sheer number of locations that will up the level of fresh produce offerings.

Yet I think the industry needs to do more, and not rely on “top-down” strategies to increase consumption.

An industry generic promotion campaign could create some effective messages to prime the pump of consumer demand for fruits and vegetables at retail and foodservice operations.

Fruits and vegetables need a “hip” factor in the consumer culture that overshadows the timeworn and boring label of “healthy” and the dangerous tag of “pricey.”

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.