It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
No, really. Which was it? Best or worst?
That’s the question I have thought about in relation to the state of the fresh produce industry as it stands now compared with some previous era.
In fact, I put the question to the LinkedIn Fresh Produce Industry Discussion Group this way:
“For those in the business for a while, what do you consider the ‘golden days’ of fresh produce marketing?”
Perhaps some might say that blissful time was when there were no foodborne illness outbreaks linked to fresh produce, the days when FDA officials never were headliners at industry events.
Those happy times when hass avocados only grew in California, bagged salads were revolutionary and kiwifruit and jicama were just bursting on the scene.
“Remember when” there were so many more buyers to sell to and retailers didn’t work you over so much?
Everybody drove a Chevrolet and paid 25 cents a gallon for gas. In the words of the “All in the Family” theme song, “Didn’t need no welfare state. Everybody pulled his weight. Gee, our old LaSalle ran great. Those were the days!”
As American columnist Franklin Pierce Adams said, “Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.”
Despite the temptation to be nostalgic, we must consider the possibility that these current times in fact are the “good old days.”
When this question about “golden years” went out on Twitter, I received a Twitter response from John Edwards (@jhnedwrds), who is president of Locavores Market and Raw Inspiration Farmers Markets. Edwards said there is no doubt about the best times.
“Today.â The incredible growth of farmers market without a single TV ad or news print ad campaign. It’s all word of mouth.â"
Indeed, for marketers of “local” food, these may be the glory years, never to be duplicated.
There are other reasons to believe these days are good. Federal policymakers have never been more friendly in their efforts to encourage fruit and vegetable consumption.
Everyone from the chic first lady to stodgy members of Congress is providing political and personal support for fruits and vegetables.
There has never been a greater focus in this country to begin looking at diet-related changes that have the potential to curb obesity and reduce the incidence of diabetes.
With 46 million Americans on food stamps and some reports saying some supermarkets get more than 10% of their sales from food stamps, we probably should retract Archie Bunker’s line “didn’t need no welfare state.”
The fact that the USDA and lawmakers are thinking of ways to elevate fruits and vegetables within the food stamp program is helpful to the nation’s diet and fruit and vegetable growers.
The USDA’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program has been an incredible success story over the past 10 years, growing from a four-state pilot program into nationwide effort that distributes free fruits and vegetables to thousands of school children every day.
Updated nutrition guidelines for school meals aim to double fruit servings for breakfasts to one cup and up the daily lunch requirement from a half cup of fruits and vegetables to three-fourths to one cup of vegetables and one-half to one cup of fruit.
And while there have been food safety outbreaks and promises for added layers of regulation for years to come, there is hope that the work done now will pay dividends in fewer foodborne outbreaks, greater consumer confidence and a resulting rising tide of prosperity that will lift all industry operators.
Engaging consumers has never been more accessible, with the use of social media and smartphones changing the game for marketers.
The relentless march in packinghouse and packaging technology continues, not to be outdone by the introduction of niche fresh produce varieties and the increasing sophistication of value-added fruits and vegetables.
Yes, there are plenty of reasons to see the glass as half full.
The lackluster economy is one glaring reason I can’t fully embrace the notion that these are the good old days. From 2000-09, USDA statistics on retail fresh fruit availability show that per capita numbers declined from 122 pounds per person to 121 pounds per person.
That decline of less than 1% compares with a 10% increase from 1990 to 2000, when per capita availability of fresh fruit in the U.S. rose from 111 pounds to 122 pounds.
From 1980-90, the USDA said fresh fruit availability rose 9.2%, from 101 pounds in 1980 to 111 pounds 1990.
The picture for fresh vegetables is even less pretty. Per capita availability for fresh vegetables declined from 186 pounds per person in 2000 to 170 pounds in 2009, a drop of 9%. In contrast, per capita availability for fresh vegetables increased 17% in the 1990s and 13% in the 1980s.
For happy days — and the best of times we can recall with Archie Bunker certainty — we need to demand that our politicians deliver an improving, business-friendly economy. Mister, we could use a guy like Herbert Hoover again.
What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.