Produce Growers: How are consumers feeling about food these days?

July 13, 2023

How concerns about both inflation and sustainability impact consumer concerns

How can produce growers address their customers concerns?

How are consumers feeling about food these days? It’s certainly a mixed bag of emotions and market realities. Combine consumer concerns about inflation and compressed home budgets, an ongoing pandemic and increased focus on health and wellness and healthier eating, and you have a complicated recipe full of challenges and opportunities as a greenhouse produce grower.

While inflation has certainly been at the forefront of consumer concerns lately, and food prices being front and center, Americans are back to eating out at levels closer to pre-pandemic times; but they are also still cooking at home in a big way and are spending more on groceries. Some bigger grocery budgets are due to price increases but they are also a result of consumers buying more vegetables and fruits.

In fact, when you scan grocery sales data trends it appears that sales in all categories are up, except alcohol, which is down. Interestingly, all three grocery stores I frequent have significantly reduced their wine and beer inventory and store footprints over the last few months. The funny thing is all of them had doubled down on noticeably bigger wine sections pre-pandemic. Just when you think a bigger booze section might be in order, given what we’ve all been through the last couple of years, shoppers seem to be trying to find healthier ways to manage the stress.

While health and wellness are predominant drivers in consumer food choices right now, speed is also a big priority. Consumers want to spend less time on meal prep. We all want to eat more veggies, but we want them to be fast and easy to cook or serve.

Case in point; after attending a weekend’s worth of kid’s activities with my nieces and nephews this past weekend, I can recall at least five separate conversations I had with my sisters and other moms about how important it was they serve healthier means and get more veggies and fruits into their kid’s mouths, but that as working professionals they don’t have time to do the necessary kitchen prep at dinner time.

Healthier eating has certainly become a bigger priority that it was pre-pandemic, but everyone’s time and patience is overstretched. Parents are looking for healthy fresh, cooked, and frozen vegetable meal options that are ready to be popped in the microwave or oven for quick serving. They all also asserted that always keeping plenty of pre-prepped snacking veggies and fruits on hand is key to managing both their time and their kid’s diets – and their own sanity.

Maintaining sanity is, I think, what consumer choices these days are coming down to. It’s not just about eating what we know will be healthy. It’s about how eating certain foods makes us feel. Are we supporting our mental and emotional wellness with what we are eating, or will we make it tougher to cope with poor food choices? I wonder how much of this mindset of self-care has influenced recent decreases in grocery store alcohol sales.

Sustainability is also more important to today’s grocery shopper than ever before. We all want faster healthy food – but we also feel guilty about all the excess packaging that comes along with it. This is particularly present for me in any number of pre-prepped meal services that I’ve tried over the last few years. Having lots of fresh vegetables and protein prepped for me certainly enables me to eat healthier in less time. But there is so much packaging involved that I always feel compelled to stop delivery after a while.

In terms of crops in high demand, there’s plenty of room to expand production on leafy greens, herbs, Cole crops, and berries; not to mention tiny tomatoes and peppers for snacking. Now, berries still present challenges for greenhouse and CEA growers that we must remedy with better innovative technology. To manage good berry production whilst maintaining flavor and shelf-life growers also need to reduce the miles between production facilities and their consumers. Growing more local is necessary.

Ultimately, I think the most important message for produce growers right now is that grocery shoppers are trying to find ways to be kinder to themselves through their relationship with food. Higher prices and supply chain issues aside, closer emotional connections between food and wellness represent big opportunities for produce growers. We want shortcuts when it comes to our food and how we eat it; we just want them to be healthy and we don’t want to feel guilty about taking them!

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