Golden years may not be so golden for fresh produce demand

12/12/2013 02:55:00 PM
Tom Karst

Tom KarstWe’ve been told that America is getting older. If our own graying temples and aching bones don’t suggest the truth, recent Census Bureau statistics certainly confirm that point.

The data shows that the over 65 population was 13.4% in 2012, up from 11.9% in 2000.

The actual number of Americans over 65 climbed to 41.5 million, up from 32.6 million in 2000.

Projections for the future from the Census Bureau show that AARP is bound to have its golden era in the next 30 years. By 2020, the middle series projection for the U.S. population is over 65 population is 55.9 million, or 17% of the U.S. total population. By 2030, the over 65 population will jump to 72.7 million, of 20% of the population. By 2040 - not far from my 80th birthday, I hope - the over 65 population will be nearly 80 million, or 21% of the population.

 How this graying of America affects the future of fresh produce demand is interesting to contemplate. It’s got to be good news, right? One might assume that older Americans will be more invested in choosing the right kinds of food to stave off the aging process; all blueberries, all the time, am I right? Will older Americans consumer more canned fruits and vegetables and less fresh because of the hassle of making trips to the market?

 I would think that home delivery of groceries and fresh food would be attractive for “seasoned citizens.” The grocery store holds no mystery or romance for a 70-year old, I would guess. The attraction of home delivery will only increase in the years ahead. By the way, did you hear that Amazon Fresh is moving into San Francisco

Looking at geography, the Census Bureau  reports the states with the most “senior’ population in 2010 were mostly easy to predict. Florida (17.3% over 65) leading the list. Others near the top of the chart included Maine (15.9%), Vermont (14.6%), Arkansas (14.4%) and Iowa (14%).

Another Census Bureau report that is worth noting is the 2010 state-specific report on fruit and vegetable consumption by age group.

It seems my hunch that today’s seniors love produce more than youngsters is correct.

Looking at the 65 and over population in 2009, 41.3% of that age group ate two or more fruits every day, compared with 30.5% in the 45- to 54- year old bracket,  and 30.8% of 18-to 24-year olds who ate two or more fruits per day.

About 29% of the over-65 population consumed three or more vegetables, compared with only 27.6% of those aged 45- to 54-years and 20.1% of those from 18 to 24 years old.

 That is awesome news.

But will the generalization that older consumers eat more fruits and vegetables continue to hold in decades hence? It might be dangerous to assume so, since those light-eating 18 to 24 year olds eventually will receive an unsolicited AARP membership card. A USDA study from 2009 illustrates this point.

In a report ominously called "Younger Consumers Exhibit Less Demand for Fresh Vegetables," the ERS economists told me about their findings.  From The Packer archives:

 

“Unless something happens to alter how the current young make food choices, they likely will exhibit a lower level of demand for at-home fresh vegetables in their later years than today’s older generations currently exhibit,” the report said.

The study used consumer expenditures data from 1982-2003, said Gary Lucier, economist with the USDA ERS and co-author with USDA economist Hayden Stewart.

Stewart said the study doesn’t necessarily refute the idea that all consumers may eat more fresh vegetables as they grow older, but the data suggest that younger consumers start from a lower base level and remain at every age point behind the generations of cohorts before them.

“We tried to separate the effects of aging from the effects of when you were born,” he said.

“It’s entirely possible that, say, my own demand for fresh vegetables might grow with age to at least some point, and my parents, their kind of fresh vegetable demand-to-age trajectory might move the same way,” he said. “Even for my kids, that is possible.”

Stewart said he could not speculate about whether demand for fresh vegetables will continue to sag for consumers not yet born, but said the trend appears to be convincing.

“Certainly, among the (cohorts), we looked at there was a clear trend of decreasing demand for younger, demanding less than older,” he said.

The report uses inferences from consumer expenditures to make inferences about the fruit and vegetable consumption.

Economists found a strong relationship between a household’s per-capita expenditures for fresh vegetables for home consumption and the head of household’s birth year.

“What the data tell you that people that are born in a certain time period behave similarly because of characteristics of life when they were born, and they carry those behaviors with them,” Lucier said.

Lucier said the data show that younger consumers who eat less than their parents eat will carry that behavior forward over time.

“If someone is eating fewer vegetables today, 20 years from now, they will still be eating fewer vegetables, and 40 years from now, they will be eating fewer vegetables,” Lucier said.

The study said marketplace could feel the effects in various ways. Compared to their parents, younger consumers may buy smaller quantities of fresh vegetables, purchase a narrower mix of vegetables that excludes expensive items, or both.

Unlike the 1960s, Lucier said modern lifestyles do not necessarily revolve around the family dinner hour. Vegetables that used to be eaten at home more often, such as turnips and sweet potatoes, are rarely purchased by the young.

Changing behavior may be more difficult and expensive, Stewart said.

“If people are eating on the go and eating out all the time, it kind of argues that you should try to get more fruits and vegetables in the foodservice arena,” he said. “The produce industry needs to work harder at getting restaurants and foodservice operators to use products.”

In addition, marketers could emphasize convenience of fresh vegetables for at-home use, Stewart said.

“Some innovations in fresh-cut produce had a significant effect on demand for fresh vegetables -- things like broccoli florets and bagged salads -- help to stimulate increased demand for fresh vegetables, and you would hope that more such innovations down the road would do the same,” Stewart said.

If prepared foods and away-from-home foods fail to fill the gap created by reduced demand for fresh vegetables at home, the report said government programs to educate Americans about the role of vegetable consumption to health might be important.

 

Fast forward to 2013. It appears produce marketers still have work to do to reach older Americans, mainly related to their work in reaching younger Americans. Getting even more convenience-oriented with new products, getting greater volume of fresh produce in restaurants is absolutely essential. And perhaps instead of Sesame Street characters in the produce department, we need Nike and BMW logos.

How do you think the industry should market produce to the over 65 crowd?



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