ORLANDO, Fla. — With the Obama Administration’s Let’s Move! initiative and other efforts to tackle the nation’s health problems through better nutrition, Phil Lempert’s message to the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit attendees was clear.

“More than at any other time, this is the time for produce,” Lempert, the editor of supermarketguru.com, said at an Oct. 15 workshop, “Consumer Behavior: What’s Next?” “You are not selling produce. You are selling life.”

But just because the fresh produce industry has the wind at its back doesn’t mean it will be easy to increase consumption and sales, Lempert said. His key advice to attendees was to get in front of trends before they appear. By the time everyone’s talking about them, it’s probably too late.

One way for retailers to move quickly to take advantage of shifts in consumer behavior, Lempert said, is to be more flexible. He cited dollar stores as a retail channel that understands this.

“Dollar General doesn’t have a plan-o-gram” telling it what to stock weeks in advance, Lempert said. “If tomorrow there’s a big apple harvest, they can turn on a dime and change their stock.”

Lempert also noted the growth of smaller stores, with Wal-Mart and its 12,000-15,000-square-feet footprints leading the way. Because they’re smaller, these stores pose new challenges to the produce industry. With fewer stock-keeping units, for example, quality becomes even more important, because retailers can be even more selective about what they stock.

“You need to make sure that when there are 5,000 Fresh & Easys and 10,000 (smaller) Wal-Marts, produce will be front and center,” he said.

Produce companies also need to do a better job of reaching out to the tens of millions of baby boomers eager to prolong their lives through better nutrition, Lempert said. It’s the “elephant in the room” that marketers, who have their eyes focused on younger Americans, don’t see, he said.

When it comes to gauging what consumers want, food companies tend to do a poor job, Lempert said. They either don’t listen at all, or they listen and get defensive — telling consumers why they did something instead of admitting that that something was wrong.

Lempert recommends old-fashioned and newfangled methods for getting closer to consumers. On the old-fashioned side, he told produce industry members to go to grocery stores, approach shoppers and ask them what they like and don’t like.

The newfangled approach, he said, centers on harnessing the power of social media. Lempert said he tweets and Facebooks daily, and he recommends produce professionals do the same.

“If you can’t talk to your consumers once a day, get out of business,” he said.