A heavy emphasis on healthy diets seems to be driving produce sales in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market, according to fruit and vegetable suppliers in the metropolitan area.

“Produce continues to grow in consumption and in its importance to Twin Cities’ shoppers,” said Mary Vander Leest, spokeswoman for Eden Prairie, Minn.-based retail distributor Supervalu Inc.

She said tastes vary among the ethnic groups in the Twin Cities.

But the eat-healthy theme ties all those groups together, she said.

“As people are trying to eat healthier, produce is the focus. They’re looking for convenient ways to serve fruits and vegetables, so pre-cut is a value-added opportunity, both in CPG (consumer packaged goods) and in-store products,” she said.

Value-added products are a growth area for Inver Grove Heights, Minn.-based North Country Produce, an affiliate of Wadena, Minn.-based Russ Davis Wholesale, said Adam Gamble, general manager for North Country.

“We specialize in packaging and repacking and have a fresh-cut facility for Russ Davis,” he said.

Convenience is a big seller at Kowalski’s Markets, a nine-store chain based in Woodbury, Minn., said Tim Fortier, produce manager at the Woodbury store.

“Our cut fruit and vegetable category is huge,” he said.

Fortier said there are customers from nearby office complexes who come into the store to purchase pre-packaged produce for lunch.

“People are coming in and grabbing that stuff for lunch rather than getting a sandwich or tacos,” Fortier said.

“Whether they spend $7 on cut fruit or at Chipotle, they’re still spending $7.”

Locally grown fruits and vegetables are driving higher sales, said Dean Schladweiler, produce manager with The Wedge Community Co-Op, a Minneapolis-based retail store that also has a growing operation.

“People here want to know where their food comes from,” said Schladweiler, whose company also has direct connections with 50 other area growers.

Sales keep going up, said Tom Bergin Jr., vice president of Bergin Fruit & Nut Co., St. Paul, Minn.

“We’ve had a pretty good volume increase — up about 18% year to date,” he said.

The market has been changing in recent years, said Phillip Brooks, chief executive officer of New Brighton, Minn.-based H. Brooks & Co., one of the metro area’s oldest produce wholesalers.

“You have traditional players, and you’re getting more of the national chains in the Twin Cities,” he said.

Brooks asaid there is still a “strong group” of independent retailers and restaurants in the market.