Opinions

Attention branded food-makers: America needs a food hero

Posted by Antonia Gaynor on April 28th, 2014 at 7:00 am

A healthy food culture is growing in the U.S. A 2012 study on the food habits of baby boomers indicates that they are more food conscious, more attentive to food labels, and know more about the origins of their food products than they did in 1980. The same survey showed that more Americans -- boomers included -- are buying organic food items, and a larger percentage of their grocery purchases are organic products than they were in years past.

For both Millennials and Baby Boomers, "fresh and healthy" is a priority area in food consumption. It could also be considered a key area of opportunity for branded food-makers and national food chains.

Clearly, awareness is on the rise. But what America needs now is someone ready to reap the harvest of the slow buildup in the importance of good food, healthy food and, as they say, slow food. America needs a food hero. Here’s some hopeful news: recent reports indicate Americans say they are consuming fewer calories and cutting back on fast food, cholesterol and fat.

A recent study by the US Department of Agriculture adds to growing evidence that suggests America’s eating habits may be taking a more healthful turn and that caloric intake has declined. Americans are eating more home-cooked meals, and there are promising shifts in overall behavior, including greater public awareness and pressure on food manufacturers and the restaurant industry to produce more healthful offerings.

The cynics among you would point out that these better food choices are attributable to the cash-strapped finances of American households, rather than an improvement in the nation’s food culture. But according to the USDA report, only “20% of the improvements in diets of those surveyed could be traced to Americans cutting back on fast food or restaurant meals.” The decline in caloric intake was mostly attributed to an increase in consumer focus on nutrition in selecting foods, changes in the quality of foods available and greater nutritional information available to consumers.

It’s important for marketers to recognize the shift in food culture in this country and give it due credit. There are local markets promoting locally farmed and organic produce, as well as community supported agriculture programs, school garden programs and food literacy centers sprouting up. This isn’t a totally new phenomenon, but with the expansion of social media and the mainstream growth of Whole Foods and the Food Network, the culture is starting to make a big impact. Companies need to decide if they want to be part of the national food movement and influence it. There is a huge opportunity for corporations to become food heroes by promoting more cultural change, encouraging community investment and giving Whole Foods some competition.

When a food hero and a big business work together, real change can occur. A great example of this is the partnership between Jamie Oliver and Sainsbury’s, one of the largest supermarket chains in the UK. The partnership wasn’t purely about selling more product, though any endorsement from Mr. Oliver consistently triggered huge leaps in featured groceries. Oliver, an outspoken supporter of ethical food, got the supermarket chain to stop selling eggs from battery hens. Sainsbury’s, by association with the cause, earned positive feedback from consumers and presumably more brand loyalty. British chefs and audiences influence food programming, and ensure that it’s centered around promoting local and sustainable food production, with popular shows like Rick Stein’s Food Heroes and What to Eat Now.

Big companies in the US are also starting to latch on. Walmart was one of the first large corporations to promote inexpensive organic food, and they are also quietly embracing local food suppliers and distribution networks for locally sourced products in key regions of the U.S. However, there are certainly many issues with Walmart, and the marketing power of the word “organic” is multi-faceted. When Walmart sells organic milk, it probably comes from a cow living in a 5,000-cow feedlot in the desert and has never seen a blade of grass.

Regardless of where the milk comes from, consumers are embracing the healthiness. Walmart’s 2013 Economic Customer Insights Report announced that its natural and organic food sales are growing almost twice as much as traditional food products.

So, who else wants to latch on to the healthy food movement? More importantly, who wants to do it better, more ethically and sustainably than Walmart? Any takers? The consumers are there. They’re just waiting for someone to innovate and write a new agenda for healthy, affordable eating that can work at a national level.

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