I had the chance to chat on May 27 with Elizabeth Pivonka, president of the Produce for Better Health Foundation, Wilmington, Del., (The chat was a combination of online, email and audio interview because of connection problems)
2:17 p.m. Tom Karst: Hi Elizabeth. Thanks for taking time for a Fresh Talk chat. What have you been working on so far this week?
2:18 p.m. Elizabeth Pivonka: Much of my time has been spent on items related to this promotion board concept. This week for example, I've been working on a survey that we hope to send to the industry sometime next month.
Am also investigating how we might allow more "chat" on the fvcampaign.org website, just held a webinar at the request of the potato industry, and am trying to pull together a task force to further address how a board might be structured and governed. (Any volunteers?)
2:19 p.m. Tom: I like to ask people about how they made their first connection to the industry. I know you and I share Kansas State as an alma mater. What was it like after you graduated and when did you make your first connection to the industry?
2: 20 p.m. Elizabeth: I graduated and a week later got married and moved to the East Coast the week after that. I worked at the University of Delaware as an assistant professor for a couple of years. A friend of mine happened to work for PMA and there was a position available and she suggested that I apply for it and so that was my first exposure. I had never heard of PMA. I didn’t know there were trade associations representing the produce industry and I just happened to know somebody who knew of a position that was available – in fact it was one of my students.
2:23 p.m. Tom: You were in nutrition, right, that was your field?
Elizabeth: My doctorate is in foods and nutrition science.
2:24 p.m. Tom: So you hooked on with PMA and not too long after that you had the opportunity with the Produce for Better Health Foundation….
Elizabeth: PMA donated my time to the foundation and I worked almost 100% for the foundation from the time the foundation stated in 1991 until I became president in 1997.
2:25 p.m. Tom: When did you know you could be an effective manager of people as well as your expertise in nutrition – how did you gain that confidence to be a manager in an organization like PBH?
2:26 p.m. Elizabeth I’m really good at process and that has served us well in managing a large board. I may not have been as good at process early on but I learned the value of process and now that I know the value of it, I’m actually quite good at following process. I think that may come from having a more structured science background.
2:28 p.m. Tom: So in other words, you can follow of the progression of an issue the way it needs to be followed...
2:29 p.m. Elizabeth Yes, and contact the appropriate groups at the appropriate time -
when do I need to get approval for this, or when do I need to get approval for that. I actually thought that was one of my strengths, about the process of association work; recognizing that these aren’t my decisions, these are the decisions of the board.
2:31 p.m. Tom I see recently you have a “Role Models” new release. Is it gratifying to work with companies, whether retailers or growers shippers, that are really striving to make the most out of their relationship with PBH?
2:32 p.m. Elizabeth: It is gratifying. It’s gratifying to see the industry come together to work on a single message and a single effort to increase fruit and vegetable consumption. Whether this promotion board comes to fruition or not, my hope is that the industry will still continue to do that.
2:34 p.m. Tom: It’s probably been quite a bit of work for you to travel and dialogue about the promotion board. Have you kept track of the number of presentations you have done?
Elizabeth: Prior to PBH’s board meeting in early April, I shared the promotion board presentation in person with 17 first handlers and 11 association leaders.
Since that time, most presentations have been at association meetings. We’ve also added a town hall forum at the PMA foodservice conference in Monterey, which isn’t yet on this list.) By the way, about 1/2 of my travel this year would have occurred anyway, for normal PBH business (much of it to help raise funds).
We’ve also had six webinars since early April (hosted by CHRobinson, so no cost to PBH).
2:38 p.m. Tom: I was also intrigued by your mention of the fact that in one of PBH recent communications that in future forums there might be somebody in the industry to represent each side of the issue. Have you identified folks who would be willing to do that yet or you still looking for those guys?
2:39 p.m. Elizabeth: I’m still looking for those guys. I’m happy to have any volunteers who would like to step up to participate.
2:40 p.m. Tom: I'm sure you probably have the best idea of anyone of how the industry is feeling, but I know you will be curious to see the results of the survey. I know The Packer's Produce Pulse survey in April/May was generally positive toward the idea. How would generalize the overall industry "vibe" at this point?
2:42 p.m. Elizabeth: The Packer's Produce Pulse survey actually captured a lot of what I've heard -- fairly consistently, in fact. What's missing from my conversations and from the Produce Pulse is a further "drill down" to understand exactly which segments of the industry feel which way and why. I can't capture that from just the one-on-one conversations, town halls, etc.
2:44 p.m. Tom: Attending the United meeting in Las Vegas, I heard one grower wonder if the government would step up and provide more messaging about diets and the importance of fruits and veggies. Is there any chance PBH could get direct funding in some of the health care bill being considered by Congress?
2:45 p.m. Elizabeth: In our experience, most direct government funding goes through a grant process. Since we're not a research institute, we've never been competitive for any HHS/NIH grant. Our best hope is for a USDA grant, and we've applied for a couple of those. Regarding direct funding from the health care bill, there's a lot to be said about being in D.C. and actively in the face of legislators. PBH isn't staffed with a D.C. office to do this. Not to mention the fact that we'll be lucky if "prevention" in general is part of this bill, let alone anything specific to fruits and vegetables.
2:47 p.m. Tom: What does the recent study about the decline in healthy lifestyles (including fruit and vegetable consumption) since 1986 tell us about either the effectiveness of past promotion efforts or perhaps the need for stronger behavior change messaging?
2:49 p.m. Elizabeth: I hadn’t seen the article yet and could only review the abstract on-line…. am trying to get the full article. Importantly, I can see from the abstract that this is NHANES data, which is the “golden standard.” Yet it sounds contrary to many health styles trend info that we’ve heard over the years – that people are more interested in health, boomers make changes as they age, etc. In addition, other data sources suggest that fruit/vegetable consumption is at least flat, rather than going down as this study suggests. So my first reaction is really one of surprise (at least about the fruit/veg piece of it). I want to see which segments of society are pulling the numbers down the most. For example, is it worse in low-income, less educated groups? If so, are there more of them in this study? Did they control for factors such as the mother working outside the home (since we know that those families generally eat fewer fruits/vegetables)? Which fruits/vegetables did they count, etc…
Regardless of this study, however, assuming that consumption is flat or down, I’ve already come to the conclusion that a stronger fruit/vegetable marketing effort aimed at changing behavior is necessary to move consumption up. I don’t think our past and current marketing & communications efforts have been ineffective, there’s just not enough of it. If there were a stronger national program, it would help set the stage – prime the consumer, so to speak. Then brands, commodity boards, retailers and foodservice operators would add their unique marketing programs, and everyone benefits. $30 million may not sound like a lot to some, but it’s significantly more than is currently spent. It’s also enough to let Congress know that the industry is serious and could help pave the way for matched funding in the next farm bill.
2:53 p.m. Tom: Looking ahead, what’s the timetable for gathering input and the executive committee making a decision on the next step for the promotion board concept?
2:54 p.m. Elizabeth: The timing is such that we have a survey we would like to give out to the industry early this summer - it’s an electronic survey, an email - and another we would like to get out right after the PMA convention, because there is a town hall meeting scheduled for the PMA convention.
We’re trying to see if we can get the results back from that second survey in time for PBH’s executive committee meeting at the end of October. I think we can do it. If not, I may have to push the PBH executive committee meeting back a week or so, because I would like to have that last survey out after the PMA convention.
2:56 p.m. Tom: I appreciate your time, Elizabeth. Thanks.
Elizabeth: Thank you, Tom.