Three new ways for consumers to buy fresh foods highlighted at Chicago food show.

By Kay Shipman, FarmWeek Legislative Affairs Editor


Consumers buying fresh produce and other healthy foods from more businesses will continue finding new options, according to an industry panel at the United Fresh Market Expo in Chicago’s McCormick Place. The panelists, representing convenience stores, drug stores and a meal kit delivery service, discussed consumers’ desire for convenient fresh foods.

Convenience stores

Jeff Lenard, a vice president with the National Association of Convenience Stores, noted his members’ 154,000 stores conduct 160 million transactions daily. Fresh foods, only 21 percent of in-store sales, accounted more than one third of the profits, according to Lenard.

“Fresh is where the action is happening inside our stores,” he said. “There is demand for healthy.”

His association and the United Fresh Produce Association are working to increase fresh produce sales in convenience stores.

Lenard reasoned many convenience store customers don’t know fresh produce is available or its location within a store. Repeated marketing campaigns and more promotions, including at gas pumps, billboards and other outside marketing, are needed.

Convenience stores must view produce choices and customer convenience differently than other businesses, Lenard explained. While some businesses think dinner plate, “the cup holder is our [convenience stores’] dinner plate,” he said. And convenience stores must appeal quickly to customers who spend on average 3 minutes and 33 seconds in a store and immediately eat their food purchases.

Lenard suggested breakfast, when Americans think of fruit, yogurt, eggs and cereal, as convenience stores’ best opportunity to promote healthier choices compared to other meals.

Drug stores

“Drug stores are in their infancy with produce,” said Angel Pinkstaff, director of business development for Hamacher Resource Group Inc., a drug store management company.

Drug stores may be new to this market, but show promise. A third of the nation’s CVS Pharmacy stores sell healthy foods, which accounted for 40 percent of edible food sales, according to Pinkstaff. Walgreens is selling fresh produce in locations with few nearby grocery stores.

“More than just selling produce, consumers need to engage with pharmacists about fresh food and healthy options,” Pinkstaff said. “I’m not suggesting a full line of groceries. We need to focus on what is a drug store’s responsibility and how to educate [consumers].”

She envisioned drug stores and their pharmacists developing customized food options for people with chronic diseases, such as diabetes. Diabetic consumers could buy a low-glycemic diet from “a fresh food pharmacy,” Pinkstaff said.

“We can use food as medicine. There is real opportunity for pharmacists and dieticians to get involved,” she stated. “We have to teach pharmacists. Patients ask them about everything. We need to empower them [pharmacists].”

Meal kit delivery

Making homemade meals easier for families not only means more fresh produce will be eaten, but different fruits and vegetables may turn up on Americans’ plates, according to Megan Burritt, produce category leadership director for Blue Apron, a meal kit delivery service.

Burritt and her chefs just finished planning winter squash dishes on the company’s menu. Because “the average American doesn’t like to break down a squash,” Blue Apron works with chefs and farmers to identify squash varieties best suited for its recipes of two to three portions, she explained.

“We can shape [consumer] demand by putting an ingredient with a recipe,” Burritt said.

After Blue Apron gains information about customer preference, the company uses an algorithm to estimate the potential amount of fruits and vegetables that will be needed and work with growers to plan accordingly, she explained.