Fresh Food

What’s Hot in Winter Produce

Shoppers seek an immunity boost from fruits and veggies
Photograph: Shutterstock

With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing into the winter months, consumers are more likely than ever to seek out foods that are good for their immune systems. With wellness at top of mind, nutrient-packed fresh fruits and vegetables will likely play a prominent role this season in filling consumers’ grocery carts.

Produce-fueled health was a hot topic at the Produce Marketing Association’s 2020 Fresh Summit, held virtually Oct. 13-16. In the “Selling a Healthier You: Marketing the Benefits of Fresh Floral and Produce” session, panelists discussed the wellness trend and offered marketing tips.

“We’ve come to appreciate our immunity now more than ever before,” said William Li, president and medical director of the Angiogenesis Foundation in Cambridge, Mass. “Kiwis help feed our gut, which helps boost our immunity. Mushrooms have soluble fiber that activates the antibodies in our saliva. Green cruciferous vegetables like broccoli can even help boost our responses to vaccines.”

In the session “Understanding the Consumer for Marketplace Success,” panelist Anne-Marie Roerink, principal with 210 Analytics in San Antonio, pointed out that health, nutrition and immunity are major trends in the COVID era. “It’s all about vitamin C, vitamin D, antioxidants,” she said. “How can we better leverage that?”

Roerink noted several instances of suppliers and retailers doing just that. For example, Dole has included messaging about vitamin content and immunity-boosting benefits on bags of broccoli, and Minnesota-based Kowalski’s Markets created its own “Antioxidant Mix” of fresh fruits. “It’s not just about the features,” she said. “It’s also about the benefits. Simple ideas for reinforcing the idea of nutrition, health and immunity.”

Winter Produce Trends

Boulder, Colo.-based Alfalfa’s Market has long emphasized fresh produce, and with the opening of its new Longmont, Colo., store Oct. 30, the category will take center stage through a new culinary theater concept: the Produce Lab. Located within the produce department, the open-air station invites shoppers to watch team members slice and dice produce, as well as ask questions about preparation methods. Pandemic-permitting, shoppers will eventually have the opportunity to taste fresh-cut samples.

“We make so much wonderful stuff in the produce department, from guacamole to pico de gallo to value-added items like cut vegetables and fruit,” said John Gengel, director of store performance and operations. “These things are usually made behind the double doors in our production areas, so customers never see them. So we thought, why not bring that out front?”

For the upcoming winter season, Gengel sees customers gravitating toward seasonal squash such as butternut, acorn and delicata. “I think those are going to be in high demand, for sure,” he said. “People do a lot of cooking in crock pots in the winter, so people will be buying potatoes, onions, yams and carrots for stews. We’re also moving into citrus season.”

Along with the comfort and flavor factors, Gengel believes health considerations will be a driver for winter produce purchases. “People are into fresh juicing of both fruits and vegetables,” he said. “Wellness is a huge thing.”

Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets, based in Addison, Ill., is also shining a spotlight on healthy produce this winter. “Produce packed with nutrients is always a big seller, but we believe the demand will grow in the coming months given the uncertainty of what the future holds regarding world health,” said General Manager and Produce Buyer Robertino Presta Jr. “We are specifically anticipating a demand for citrus items like oranges and bags of clementines, along with pomegranates.”

Like many retailers, Angelo Caputo’s has seen a major surge in online grocery sales during the pandemic. Rather than posting stock images of fruits and vegetables on the store’s e-commerce website, the company puts special effort into translating the visual appeal of the produce department to online shoppers.

“Along with photos from our in-house photography team, we like to use any type of professional media provided by our shipping partners and sellers,” Presta said. “This allows the consumer to see the best features of what they are buying. We also try to use our social media presence to promote our products from afar and present them in an appealing way.”

Front and Center Immunity Messaging

While many consumers already make the connection between immune system health and certain produce varieties, they sometimes need an extra nudge. With this in mind, Salinas, Calif.-based D’Arrigo California, grower of Andy Boy produce, launched a wellness-focused marketing campaign in May, highlighting broccoli rabe. Running for four weeks on various social media platforms, the “Boost Your Immunity” campaign presented recipes, educational videos and health facts.

“In light of COVID-19, our strategy was to inspire, educate and bring awareness of how a supergreen veggie like broccoli rabe can boost one’s immunity,” said Claudia Pizarro-Villalobos, D’Arrigo’s head of marketing and communications. “Broccoli rabe offers a powerful dose of fiber, vitamins and minerals.”

The campaign also positioned broccoli rabe as a way for families to overcome pandemic cooking fatigue by incorporating new vegetables into their daily meals. In addition to posting on social media, D’Arrigo worked with select retailers on in-store promotions.

“As we head into the winter months, we are faced with the stress of the holidays, COVID-19, Zoom classes, and working-from-home burnout, and these factors can ignite poor food choices,” said Pizarro-Villalobos. “Let’s face it, most people do not think of fresh produce as comfort food, but the importance of building and maintaining an optimally functioning immune system starts with a healthy lifestyle.” 

Success for Citrus                  

When it comes to consumer perceptions of immunity-boosting properties, citrus has an almost unfair advantage. When the pandemic hit, demand skyrocketed as shoppers rushed to get their vitamin C.

“It created an absolute feeding frenzy, like I've never experienced in the industry,” said Craig Morris, citrus category director at organic fruit grower Homegrown Organic Farms in Porterville, Calif. “People were buying every single category, every size, every grade. It really caught us by surprise.”

During the pandemic, sales of specialty citrus varieties have taken a backseat to basics. “We carry all the specialty lines, and I would say that overall, the hardware items—the oranges, the mandarins, the grapefruits—seem to have had better traction,” Morris said. “The specialty citrus items don’t seem to have near the emphasis.”

For the coming winter, Morris predicts that the health benefits of citrus will continue to drive sales. “Citrus is the one category that people lean toward when it comes to colds or viruses,” he said. “When there is a lot of sickness going around during the wintertime, we definitely see an uptick in business.”

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