Tim York, Markon Cooperative
Tim York, Markon Cooperative

Since moving to the White House in 2009, first lady Michelle Obama has made ending childhood obesity her top priority with her Let’s Move campaign.

While focused on increasing kids’ physical activity, improving school lunches, and exhorting food manufacturers to increase the nutritional value of their food, the campaign also takes aim at another target — eating outside the home.

“Research clearly shows that home-cooking is one of the single most impactful ways for families to improve their health,” the first lady said at a recent conference of the Partnership for Healthier America (PHA), an organization devoted to working with the private sector to solve the childhood obesity crisis.

The conference also included powerful speakers such as former Senator Bill Frist; Janet Murguia, president of La Raza; chef Sam Kass from Let’s Move; Michael Jacobsen of the Center for Science in the Public Interest; and retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, who shared startling statistics about the difficulty of finding young people fit enough to qualify for military service.

Foodservice faces pressure from home-cooked mealsDescribing home-cooked meals as lower in fat, sodium, cholesterol and calories than restaurant meals — and more cost-effective — Obama’s announcement was the first part of a multifaceted initiative to get families and children back into their kitchens.

As I shared in a recent column, a 2012 study in the journal Childhood Obesity found that in two-thirds of the 50 largest chain restaurants, none of the kids’ meals met nutritional standards for calories, salt, sugar and fats.

The latest foray from “Let’s Move” ramps up pressure on the industry, which has already felt the impact of changing consumer wants and needs.

In 2008, 51% of the food dollar was spent in foodservice, according to Bill Hale of The Hale Group.

He also reports that today, that number is 47%. Of the $1.2 trillion U.S. consumers spend on food annually, that is a $45 billion shift away from foodservice.

Over the past 12 months, fast food sales numbers are flat, fast-casual is up 8%; casual dining is down 1% and fine dining is up 6%.

What do these numbers tell us? Consumers are cash-strapped and time-crunched. Fast-casual is succeeding because of the perception of healthier food and rapid service. It has found the sweet spot.

In this environment, growers and shippers who provide products to foodservice can add value to operators and consumers by:


  •  Creating new, healthier use ideas for products. Yes, brussels sprouts with bacon tastes great, but by suggesting ideas that align with recommended intake of calories, sodium, etc., the industry can help foodservice provide delicious, yet healthier options.

  •  Researching menu pricing and understanding how your products line up. In other words, based on an average f.o.b. cost, freight and distributor mark-up, what is the per-serving cost of your product? Tell the story of the food cost and margin opportunity with fresh produce. Food cost averages 30% of menu price for full-service restaurants. How does your product match up?

  •  Encouraging operators to offer more fruit and vegetable options. Produce plays a bigger role in foodservice. Talk to operators about trends (including the Let’s Move message) and position your products as part of the solution. For example, try offering portion-controlled products that can easily serve as side dishes on kids’ menus.

  •  Helping operators tell your story. In addition to perceived health benefits, families may shy away from foodservice because of the perception that it offers heavily processed foods versus less fresh and natural. Help operators tell the story of how your products were grown and packed, and their nutritional benefits.


While encouraging healthy eating and reduced childhood obesity is something we can all get behind, there are many means to reach this end. Some take place with a home-cooked meal, and some do not.

Eating out doesn’t always mean eating poorly, as exemplified by the proliferation of healthy offerings on many of today’s foodservice menus.

With the help of growers and shippers, the foodservice industry will be better positioned to tell this side of the story.

Tim York is CEO of Salinas, Calif.-based Markon Cooperative, made up of eight North American foodservice distributors. Centerplate is a monthly column offering a peek at “what’s now and next” for foodservice and the implications for the produce industry.


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