Chris Koger, News Editor
Chris Koger, News Editor

Every day I’m given reasons to be hopeful the fresh produce industry can help change — however slowly — the obesity problem in the U.S.

In recent weeks, The Packer reported on the Produce Marketing Association’s Foodservice Expo, where chefs are excited about the challenge to introduce new items and flavors to menus, as well as an initiative to double fresh produce consumption at restaurants.

School is starting, and students will have more options for fruits and vegetables, whether from a new salad bar or a local grower who’s found a way to work with the needs of school foodservice kitchens.

Retailers have pledged to build stores or expand current formats in so-called urban “food deserts,” where access to healthy foods is limited.

All this is good news.

But there’s a movement to usurp the healthy image of fresh fruits and vegetables, hatched by greedy marketing executives for packaged/prepared foods.

The message: It’s far easier to get your daily servings of produce by eating food that comes out of a can or box.

TV ads show people drinking V8 juice, numbers above their heads ticking off the vegetable servings they’re drinking. Kids are told to “Meat their Vegetables,” eating a Manwich sloppy joe to fulfill a serving of vegetables.

Some Kraft Macaroni & Cheese has pulverized cauliflower baked in the pasta dough. Ragu and Chef Boyardee products claim the tomato sauce equals eating tomatoes.

Parents across the nation rejoice: Your kids can eat the crap they like and you get points for being concerned about your kids’ health.

It’s all part of the dumbing down of what we eat and how it affects us.

Corporations are getting away with some health message claims that would be hilarious if they didn’t have the potential to warp kids’ perceptions of what’s good or bad for them.

The vending machine in our office has a heart logo next to the Diet Coke button. Diet Coke 12 packs tout the beneficial “hydration” effects of the product.

It’s enough to drive me to hydrate myself with cereal malt beverages — they’re all-natural, grain-based goodness.

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Too many times outbreaks are over and done with before someone, the Food and Drug Adminstration, local/state health department or a grower-shipper, is able to warn us. That’s the case with a recent E. coli outbreak tied to strawberries.

The outbreak is sure to continue a hot topic: Should small growers who supply farmers markets, restaurants and other locally grown venues be held to the same standards that large-scale growers must adhere to, through the Food Safety Modernization Act?

I don’t have an answer to this, but I do know that it’s time hobby farmers/raw milk proponents/farmers market suppliers own up to the fact: People can — and do — die from consuming their products.

There’s no shield that protects any grower, even those who cling to a moral high ground by using the organic/natural/local/sustainable banner.

There are other concerns, including traceability. I understand full traceability puts a burden on the grower, with labelling, packaging and documentation demands. As it stands, there’s no guarantee that there’s a clear supply chain among smaller growers.

And yet our story on the growth of farmers markets quotes Barbara Ambler-Thomas, executive director of the Walnut Creek-based California Farmers Market Association, saying that people value farmers markets because “people want to know where their food is sourced from.”

According to another story on the Oregon outbreak, the implicated grower wasn’t entirely sure who he sold his berries to, in some cases leaving investigators with a first name only.

Lesson: People may want to know where their food is sourced from, but a stall in a farmers market doesn’t come with a guarantee.

Some so-called farmers markets in large cities don’t feature local produce, and a large amount is likely grown in Mexico, Florida or California — just like what the wholesalers are selling. In many cases, that’s exactly where the farmers market bounty comes from.

The fresh produce industry needs to continue to hammer home the simple fact that fresh fruits and vegetables trump processed foods, no matter where it’s sold.

ckoger@thepacker.com

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