Produce sales continue to trend well above 2019 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. ( IRI, 210 Analytics and Produce Marketing Association )

The latest data from IRI show that fresh produce sales have stayed at higher-than-usual levels, though not quite as high as in previous weeks.

For the week ending May 24, fresh vegetable dollar sales were up 20% from the same period in 2019, while fresh fruit sales were up 9.5%, resulting in total produce growth of 14.3%.

In each of the previous three weeks, dollar sales growth for fresh produce overall had been 17% or 16%.

“Memorial Day week was an important gauge for me to see if summer fruits and vegetables got off to a strong start,” Joe Watson, vice president of membership and engagement for the Produce Marketing Association, said in a news release. “While we are seeing a bit of erosion in the growth numbers each week, total fresh produce continued to hold in the mid-teens, a very welcome pattern for retailers across the country.

“At the same time, there are many indicators that restaurant demand is strengthening, including a rising number of dinner reservations on OpenTable and continued strong takeout statistics from DoorDash, Uber Eats, Grubhub and others,” Watson said.

A recent consumer survey conducted by IRI indicates that restaurant demand won’t come back overnight, however, even as numerous states are lifting stay-at-home orders. The survey, conducted May 15-17, found that 23% of consumers plan to go out to eat or already have gone out to eat as soon as permitted, but 24% say they will wait a few weeks after that point, and 50% expect to wait a month or more after restrictions are lifted before they begin dining out again.

In the interim, more consumers will continue to be cooking more from scratch, which is an opportunity for produce.

“Nearly one-quarter of consumers (23%) predict that they will continue to cook from scratch more than they did pre-pandemic in the upcoming month,” Jonna Parker, team lead for fresh for IRI, said in the release. “This means shoppers will be looking for tips, inspiration and recipes, and the closer we can be to the intersection of inspiration and purchase decisions as brands and retailers, the better our chances for longer-term relationships.”

Lettuce, berries and potatoes were the items with the highest absolute dollar growth for the week ending May 24.

On the fruit side, citrus continued to see unusually high demand, and cherries also kept building momentum.

“Oranges continue to be on fire with another week of nearly 80% growth, and cherries built on a strong start of the season and became the fourth-highest seller among fresh fruits at nearly $66 million,” Parker said in the release.

The fresh vegetable category as a whole again performed well the week ending May 24, with all of the top 10 items seeing double-digit growth over the same period in 2019. Potatoes, mushrooms and peppers saw the largest increases.

While the produce department overall continues to see higher sales, consumers haven’t lost interest in frozen produce.

“Frozen once more had the highest gains, up 33.8%, despite continued high out-of-stocks and severely limited assortment availability for both frozen vegetables and fruit,” Anne-Marie Roerink, principal of 210 Analytics, wrote in the release.