I think antsy is the right word for it. Yes. Antsy.

Foodservice 2020 off to slow, if steady, start

Ashley Bentley
Staff Writer

It’s the perfect word to describe how the produce industry feels about the Foodservice 2020 initiative, now launched more than a year ago, but still looking to gain traction.

Some have gone so far as to say they doubt the commitment of two of the three organizations involved — the Produce Marketing Association, the National Restaurant Association and the International Foodservice Distributors Association — likening the initiative to a PR or government relations ploy. PMA’s commitment is not one up for question.

I can see how it’d be easy for someone in the produce industry to become critical of all three associations’ commitment to the initiative.

PMA has actively promoted the initiative with prime real estate on its website, participated in the NRA’s annual show with president Bryan Silbermann hosting workshops and setting up produce-focused culinary demonstrations, and signed on a new produce sponsor to the initiative this year in Paramount Citrus.

However, NRA president Dawn Sweeney was missing in action from the PMA Foodservice conference this year. The restaurant association’s website does not prominently feature information about Foodservice 2020.

IFDA has remained even quieter.

But there’s more going on behind closed doors than we all see.

Hudson Riehle, NRA’s senior vice president of its research and knowledge group, and Joan Rector McGlockton, its lead on the initiative and vice president of industry affairs and food policy, attended PMA Foodservice and actively participated in the behind-closed-doors think tank meeting that preceded the event.

I called the restaurant association to see what other developments the produce industry might have missed.

Yes, the initiative is a PR and government relations home run for the NRA. It sends the message that the restaurant industry — often the target of blame for the country’s obesity problem — is trying to do something to improve the health of Americans.

But the initiative is much more than just that. It doesn’t take too much business common sense to know that companies and organizations don’t like setting themselves up for failure.

If the National Restaurant Association didn’t have every intention of doubling the volume of produce served in U.S. restaurants by 2020, it wouldn’t have set such a lofty goal. It could just as easily have signed on to help increase the amount of produce served by 20% and still made a point.

NRA is not just in it for the halo.

The NRA’s senior vice president of public affairs and communications, Sue Hensley, explained that many of the association’s recent efforts are perfectly in line with the initiative. The NRA was intricately involved in designing Sodexo’s, Aramark’s and Compass Food Group’s pledges to increase produce use as part of a program to make school meals healthier.

Sweeney helped launch Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign as part of a small circle of people at the White House.

NRA was also a founding sponsor of Healthy Dining Finder, which now has more national chains involved than ever, and got an extra push from the association this year.

In a chat with Silbermann about the initiative, he said that things have moved a little slower than he’d like — but he also admitted to being incredibly impatient.

The past 12 months have kept NRA president Sweeney particularly busy in her still fairly new position, what with an organizational makeover, health care reform, national menu labeling laws and trying to help an entire industry through a recession to a feet-first landing.

Despite all that, the associations seem to have succeeded in laying a promising foundation.

This is the year when the rubber really needs to meet the road, Markon’s president Tim York told me. Salinas, Calif.-based Markon is one of two sponsors of the initiative, and was its founding sponsor. York said he’s looking for commitment from all three associations to determine the success or failure of the goal.

The associations had a follow-up meeting on Sept. 7 in D.C. A real action plan is in the works, Silbermann and Hensley assured me.

Silbermann also reminded me that it’s not just the produce industry that needs the support of the NRA and IFDA. They need the produce industry, too. Restaurants are looking for more and better ways to source, serve and promote produce. Consumers are demanding it, it’s profitable, and they want to do it better.

It’s OK to be critical — it’s what keeps most of us honest. Hold these organizations to their word. But be supportive, and look for results from that support.

E-mail abentley@thepacker.com

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