Around the developed world the produce industry has a dilemma. Per capita consumption of fruits and vegetables is flat or declining. The Produce for Better Health Foundation in the United States has stated it clearly in introducing its State of the Plate research:
“The results are in. As a society, we are chronic underachievers at eating our fruits and veggies and, subsequently, we are short-changing the health and well-being of generations of Americans. In 2020, PBH commissioned an update to our trended fruit and vegetable consumption research. Sadly, the news is not as encouraging as we would hope. America’s fruit and vegetable consumption continues to erode over time.”
At The London Produce Show and Conference we are trying to identify programs that might help the industry address per capita consumption. We have already unveiled two extremely interesting perspectives. First, we pointed to a seminar we are running that focuses on how an individual retailer could look to address this issue and we settled on a Swedish based retailer:
An Important Discussion
ICA Sweden’s Maria Wieloch Speaks Out:
The Imperative Of Increasing Produce Consumption to 500 Grams Per Day Per Capita
Does The Industry Have The Long Term Perspective That Is Needed?
We also recognized that there is a big gap in per capita fruit and vegetable consumption based on income and wealth. In the United States the Brighter Bites program is a science driven program focused on increasing consumption of children from low income families so we asked the CEO of the organization to come to London and explain their efforts:
The third leg of this tripartite discussion, is to analyze how the UK based Veg Power movement is attempting to move the needle on consumption in the UK.
Veg Power, a not-for-profit alliance, is on a 10-year mission to turn around vegetable consumption in the UK. The mission: to get every kid in the UK eating one more portion of veg each day. Founded by some heavy hitters in the UK food scene, such as celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Veg Power is tackling produce consumption with hip, high-powered marketing.
Veg Power’s board includes Baroness Rosie Boycott; advertising and marketing genius Sir John Hegarty; Anna Taylor, executive director of The Food Foundation; Andy Porteous, global marketing expert whose roles included senior vice president of digital for global foods at Unilever; Anne Heughan, public health nutritionist and registered dietitian; and Katie Palmer, program manager for Food Sense Wales.
Veg Power is supported and funded by organizations and individuals all over the UK that provide funding, free media, goods and services, including major food retailers and brands, such as Aldi, ASDA, Coop, Dole, Lidl, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose.
At the London Produce Show and Conference, Veg Power Chief Executive Dan Parker will share the experiences of the organization’s wildly successful campaigns, including the award-winning “Eat Them to Defeat Them.” Parker will also be unveiling detailed insight from retail sales data and consumer surveys to look at the motivations and habits of different segments of the market — from the ethically engaged youth to the dietary diehards who barely touch a vegetable. The insights will be publicly shared for the first time at the London Produce Show and Conference, being held this year at ExCeL on March 21, 22, and 23.
We asked Susan Crowell, contributing editor at Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, to find out more:
Dan Parker, CEO, Veg Power, London
Q. For readers not familiar with Veg Power, which was just started in 2018, could you give us a brief explanation of the organization and its goals?
A. The Veg Power program was founded in 2018, by a group of people you might know, including Jamie Oliver and another well-known chef in the UK, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall; the Baroness Rosie Boycott; John Hegarty, a great advertising legend; and the Food Foundation —all leading campaigners on food poverty issues.
The Food Foundation had a conference about dire poverty and food issues, and at the conference, there was a competition for designing a poster for vegetables. And that competition led to the conversation that, “Well, this isn’t really enough, is it?” If we’re going to do something serious about improving the nation’s health, which is the children’s health, we need to get set up.
Vegetables need a champion, and a campaign — much like the “got milk” campaign in the U.S. — we needed something that really got behind vegetables. And so, the group came together, and I said I would do it, if they all supported it. We launched Veg Power then, with the purpose that we need to get the country eating more vegetables.
We also looked at the supply side of vegetables with a program called “Peas, Please,” which tried to get more vegetables in meals in restaurants, and in grocery stores. It is very difficult to get more vegetables in places like small-scale convenience stores, so we’re trying to increase the availability of vegetables wherever we can, to make it easier for people to choose them.
Where the other side of our job is to find a way to increase people’s desire to eat vegetables and help them overcome the challenges they may face in their life that stops them from doing so. We do use marketing and advertising — we also just launched a school program yesterday. So, we have the schools program, the community-based programs — we do lots of emergency food banks — and also we do big TV advertising campaigns, all of which are driven by donations, and all which are designed to encourage those particularly who have poor levels of vegetable consumption, which often means low income families, and support them.
Q. So tell us a little bit about the school program.
A. Our flagship campaign is called “Eat Them to Defeat Them.” And it’s a funny, kind of a spoof horror story about vegetables that are going to take over the world, and one way to defeat them is to eat them. That is super silly, but it’s aimed at children ages 5 to 10, and they know it’s a ruse to get them to eat more vegetables, but they laugh, and they have fun.
For that, we get about $5-6 million worth of advertising donated from some of the biggest broadcasters in the country, but also from newspapers and poster sites and online and various other companies. Media companies, led by ITV, give us free media. We have advertising made for us for free by one of the big ad agencies.
It is now in 4,000 primary schools, which is what we call schools for ages 5 to 11, and there’s just a little over a million kids taking part. They all get reward charts, with in-school activities, activities for them and their families at home, with social media, books and coloring charts and all sorts of things going on for them, to encourage them to eat more veg. This is our fourth year of doing this, and it is the biggest year we’ve had. Last year, 60% of families who took part said that their kids ate more veg.
We recently had some econometric analysis done — we have a model that will give all the retail sales data by the grocery stores nationally, and then we have a model that was created for us by a couple of esteemed professors from Oxford and Cambridge. And this model tries to calculate how much change in sales can be directly linked to the work that we’re doing. Their estimation is that we have generated just a little short of an extra billion children’s portions of vegetables over the past few years — vegetables have been sold and consumed as a result of our program. That is great, but that’s still just a drop of the ocean, obviously.
Q. What will you be focusing on at the London Produce Show?
A. As part of the work that we do, we write market insight reports. We get a huge amount of retail data from the businesses that support us, and then we bring in some data scientists (who work very cheaply for us) and we produce these reports. One of the things we’ve done this year for the first time is we’ve segmented the vegetable-consuming audience, and I’m not sure this has ever been done before. We’ve taken all the data sources that are out there, which are traditional survey work, and we’ve tried to simplify the market segments — to find different groups with very different motivations, with very different vegetable-eating habits. It really shines a light on market segments and what we need to do to move those segments along. I’ll be sharing that information publicly for the first time at the London Produce Show.
For example, we estimate about 12.5% of people would be inclined to increase their vegetable consumption based on sustainability. So, these are the kinds of people who might be vegans or support a more plant-based lifestyle; they’ve got a high level of environmental consciousness going on — and they will consider eating more vegetables as driven by that motivation.
We have another group of about 40% of the population, that is just not engaged at all. They have a terrible diet, they know they have a terrible diet, and maybe they care, but they have no intention of doing anything about it. They’re the hardest to reach.
We have a segment that is driven by health, another group that’s doing a great job, and we have the Fitful Fivers, who are nearly there. Sometimes, they’re doing a good job, and they try to eat 5 a Day of fruits and vegetables, but life gets in the way, and they go through bad patches. They’re about 22.5% of the population, moving between good and middle in terms of their achievements of eating fruits and vegetables in their diet.
We’ve done this segmentation work to quantify these different groups and to understand what these people are doing and their motivations. That, then, we turn into a whole bunch of creative ideas. So, if you’ve got people who say, “Life just gets in the way,” how do we fix that? It’s very easy. What the research shows is that telling people to eat more fruits and vegetables because they’re healthy actually only has an impact on a very, very tiny group. The vast majority of people know that already, right?
What we did and what we didn’t see during the pandemic — which basically was the biggest health scare that we’re ever likely to see in our lifetimes — we didn’t really see a significant movement toward more healthy diets. We saw the healthy and wealthy became healthier and wealthier, but the vast population didn’t. So, we know the “eat more veg, they’re good for you” bits doesn’t work and never has, and probably never will.
Q. That’s definitely some information to look forward to hearing at the show! You’ll also be discussing how we can grow vegetable consumption even with a modest marketing budget. What’s the secret?
A: We all know that our charitable purpose aligns perfectly with the commercial purpose of people who work in horticulture: We want to get the world to eat more vegetables, so they’re more healthy; they want people to eat more vegetables, so they buy more vegetables. We are perfectly aligned.
If somebody’s saying to us, ’well, we’re going to do a campaign that markets vegetables,’ we want to help them to be more successful at doing that. We are very well connected, not only to celebrities but other supporters, like some past British Olympic teams and some very big names on British TV. We can leverage these stars, and we can leverage lots of chefs — we have a huge army of chefs and social media influencers that we get behind campaigns.
We also have a substantial network of schools and we’re connected to almost every single local government, the Welsh government and Scottish government, thousands of healthy weight groups across the country, foodbanks and community organizations.
We can team up with you to get a marketing campaign out to all these different channels and give you reach you couldn’t otherwise afford to buy. Reach, in media terms, is the most expensive part. You can make an advert for half a million dollars, but you need to spend $10 million on getting to the right people, so we can bring you a lot of reach.
Many companies have very little way of what you might call consumer marketing departments, because it’s not the culture of horticulture. There are some brands that have expanded, but the vast majority really don’t have a marketing bone in their bodies. Whereas we’ve got a sort of a small organization full of marketing and communications people, so we can sit down with them. And if they just want to elaborate themselves, then that’s not for me to support — we’re not the ad agency, right?
Now if you’re encouraging people to eat more pumpkin, that’s something we’ll get behind, but if you want to get them to eat more of your particular brand of pumpkin, that’s not something that we can support. We support the industry with experience, expertise and our networks, and, in some cases, starting to build up a useful infrastructure as well. We can make fairly modest budgets go further.
Q. When you talk about infrastructure, what do you mean?
We have, for example, a software platform for managing 4,000 schools taking part, with a million children, and 8,000 to 9,000 parcels being sent out, or different combinations of items. We have a stock control system, registration systems, and integrations into a fulfillment house. We have a fulfillment partner that has fast printing presses, but with integrated systems. We work with them all the time, and if you need to get resources out to 5,000 different locations, that sort of thing is bread-and-butter.
We have all that experience of doing it and have delivery systems for getting it done. We have a good CRM (customer relationship management) platform and all sorts of things that we can use, because we’ve invested quite a bit and these platforms are the foundation for operating a decent scale.
Q. What do you hope is the message the audience at the London Produce Show will take home with them?
A: Well, we’re always hoping those people support us financially or otherwise. That’s important. But, we are trying to get the sector to be ‘market-led’. The produce sector, as a whole, is very ‘produce-led’, and most of it isn’t, first and foremost, about the customer. That’s a little unfair on some people, but I don’t think it’s unfair on the sector as a whole. We’d like our sectors to look up a bit more and understand. We have important questions to answer as a sector.
The way people buy carrots is closer to how they buy gravel than it is to how they buy a wine. Very few people sit down and actually make a great deal about the quality of the product they’re buying — they just pick up a bag of carrots, and nobody buys wine that way.
We need to increase people’s perceived value of fresh produce — to appreciate produce that’s being produced well, that’s being produced in a sustainable fashion, that’s being produced with a focus on flavor, or whatever it might be.
We need to get people to place a much higher value on their fresh produce. If people place a higher value on it, they hopefully will be prepared to pay a higher price for it. The margins on the sector are generally fairly terrible. We’re not going to get those up until we get people to place a higher sense of value on the products that the produce industry works so hard to deliver. We’re in a moment, a vicious circle, that people are just churning out cheap onions, cheap carrots — it’s kind of a race to the bottom with ever smaller and smaller margins and lower prices. We need to break that cycle if we want to prosper and enjoy all these great products.
The sector is under incredible pressure: increased energy prices; significantly increased labor prices, which some passed down to us leaving the European Union; increased costs of producing things in a more sustainable fashion. There’s huge discounting, to deliver core grocery items at the lowest possible price. The margins are very, very tight. It’s very hard for people to grow fresh produce and make a living out of it, even the big companies. We need to not only get more of it out there, we need to get more of it out there in a way that allows the industry to prosper.
I suppose I would say our purpose is to get the world on vegetables. We bring together very experienced marketing people and huge amounts of support from the mass media. And we have no commercial incentive at all. So we want to share our knowledge and understanding with everybody in the sector, so the sector gets better at promoting its own products.
The most fascinating thing about the Veg Power program is that it is only about vegetables. The front page of its website lays out the mission:
“80% of our kids are not eating enough vegetables. Veg Power is on a mission to inspire kids from early years through primary school and into their teens to veggie-loving habits they will keep for life and in turn share with their children”
This is a significantly more difficult mission than getting children to eat sweet fruit. It also makes it more difficult to get industry support. What money there is in produce is often on the side of the banana giants, the berry industry, apples, etc., but an awful lot of the health impact comes from the vegetable side. So there may be a better chance of getting public policy support for a veg-centric program.
Still, money is an enormous problem. Dan rightfully is proud that they could get £5-6 million worth of advertising donated by broadcasters, newspapers, poster sites and online media. It is impressive. But McDonald’s — one company — spent £151.55 million on advertising in pre-pandemic 2019.
There are also broader issues to be considered. To some degree generic advertising which, by definition, treats all varieties, growing operations, etc., the same — does not encourage investment in varieties that provide superior flavor. It also doesn’t encourage investment in sustainability initiatives or other attributes.
The industry is certainly all behind the idea of getting people to place a higher value on fresh produce, but the evidence this can be done is pretty sparse. It is a supply-and-demand business, and if consumers, for whatever reason, value vegetables more, we will probably grow more vegetables, but it is not clear prices will increase at all.
Some important insight that grew out of the pandemic:
“What we did, and what we didn’t see, during the pandemic — which basically was the biggest health scare that we’re ever likely to see in our lifetimes — we didn’t really see a significant movement toward more healthy diets. We saw the healthy and wealthy became healthier and wealthier, but the vast population didn’t. So, we know the “eat more veg, they’re good for you” bits doesn’t work and never has, and probably never will.”
So, join us at The London Produce Show and Conference. Listen to Maria Wieloch from ICA Sweden; listen to Rich Dachman from Brighter Bites and listen to Dan Parker from Veg Power. Be part of this robust and important discussion of how the industry can boost produce consumption.
We still have a few last-minute opportunities to exhibit or sponsor. If interested let us know here.
And, of course, you can register to attend the event, March 21, 22 and 23 by signing up here.
Please be a part of this important industry conversation. The potential for growth of the industry is being debated at The London Produce Show and Conference. Please be a part of the debate!