The produce industry is no stranger to health promotion — we’ve been working to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables through collective efforts such as the Produce for Better Health Foundation for more than a decade, as well as myriad individual company efforts.

Industry’s healthy window of opportunity is now

Mike O'Brien
Schnuck Markets

We got an unprecedented opportunity to highlight our products’ healthfulness a few weeks ago when first lady Michelle Obama announced an administration initiative to improve Americans’ health, and it is now up to our industry to seize that opportunity — and we need to move quickly.

We personally had a chance to do just that March 31 and April 1 when we travelled to Washington, D.C.

After participating in the first meeting of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee, we visited with various administration, agency and congressional representatives to highlight the role the produce industry can play in encouraging healthier food choices.

Arranged by the Produce Marketing Association, these meetings were eye-opening for the officials with whom we met, as well as for us.

We began the day with the confident knowledge that our industry is a powerful resource in improving America’s health.

Industry’s healthy window of opportunity is now

Jin Ju Wilder
Coast Produce

Over the past decade, we’ve learned that health promotion is more than educating consumers — it is also about making healthy foods accessible and available everywhere they buy food, and inspiring them to eat more.

We recounted how, after a farmers market in a low-income minority community in Los Angeles had failed, a local church partnered with Coast Produce to stock a weekend open-air market with produce that met the local population’s needs.

Yet even this solution is constrained in how effective it can be because, as a nontraditional market, it can’t get approval to accept federal Women, Infants and Children or SNAP payments (the latter formerly known as food stamps).

We talked about how Schnuck Markets had opened a grocery store in downtown St. Louis, filling a retail gap in a highly commercial area. The store now serves many downtown office workers who purchase produce for lunch instead of vending machine chips or fast food.

And we talked about lessons the company learned along the way, for example adapting an outreach program targeting low-income children to make it work better.

Schnucks now samples fruits and vegetables with these kids after learning their families weren’t redeeming coupons for free product because of lack of familiarity with even common produce items.

Message received

The officials we met with were clearly moved by the passion we displayed for what we do, and for promoting our products’ healthy attributes. People who began meetings telling us how time crunched they were lingered to continue to ask us questions well past the end of our appointments.

We found them to be very open to our industry’s input and involvement, and appreciative of the expertise our industry can bring to the table.

As much as they learned from us, we also learned from them. For example, they made it clear our industry must work harder to deliver foods that consistently delight consumers with their flavor.

It is imperative that our industry do a better job of holding up our end of the bargain.

Our visits confirmed how important it is that our industry work more closely with Washington, and how we can partner toward common goals.

When we tell our story, we can connect with the people who legislate and regulate us. If we don’t, we may end up with programs that don’t work effectively, such as that L.A. market.

We also have a chance to educate them that all produce is healthy, not just locally grown, as we learned some of them appear to think.

What can you do?

Contact your congressional representatives to get a healthy conversation started. Ask them to support upcoming reauthorization of federal child nutrition programs, including increasing produce funding for the school lunch program. Industry trade groups like PMA can help you with recommendations and talking points.

We need to move quickly, because the administration is acting quickly. Our window of opportunity is open now, but it won’t stay open indefinitely.

This is our industry’s time to improve America’s health and grow our businesses in the process. We just experienced how regular people like us can work to make a difference. We invite you to get involved too.

Mike O’Brien is vice president of produce with Schnuck Markets, St. Louis, and PMA chairman-elect. Jin Ju Wilder is president of Coast Produce Co., Los Angeles, and a PMA director. This is a series of monthly columns written by PMA staff on important industry issues.