Consumers’ preferences for produce often don’t match up with their behavior, report finds


Dive Brief:

  • Many consumers’ purchasing behavior around produce conflicts with their beliefs around food waste, nutrition and local shopping, according to The American Food Journey report from Lettuce Grow and The Farm Project, a group co-founded by actor Zooey Deschanel to reconnect people with food and support small farmers. 
  • The study surveyed 1,500 U.S. residents over 18 about their food system knowledge, preferences and behavior. Although 80% of survey respondents listed locally grown produce as a top priority, 60% admitted they do not know the origins of their supermarket produce. About two-thirds (67%) of respondents said they are concerned with the number of human touchpoints on their fruits and vegetables, but one in five millennials admit to not knowing why they wash their produce.
  • The report also highlighted gaps in consumers’ knowledge about the nutritional issues around produce commonly sold at retail. Only 35% of consumers were aware that food loses 30% of its nutrients within three days of being harvested, while 92% were unaware that an apple at the supermarket is on average roughly 10 months old, according to Lettuce Grow and The Farm Project.

Dive Insight:

The American Food Journey report sheds light on a long-standing knowledge gap between producers and consumers around their expectations for food. It also reveals that while many people have strong opinions about how and what they should eat, their purchasing habits often do not match up for a variety of reasons. 

Convenience is a factor for many consumers. Three-quarters of survey respondents still purchase most of their produce from the supermarket while only 10% proactively shop farmers markets to buy local fruit and vegetables, according to The American Food Journey report. That said, access remains an issue: Not everyone has a local farmers market nearby, and the pandemic has created additional challenges through market closures, restrictions and low vendor attendance.

The COVID-19 pandemic may encourage some consumers who used the health crisis as a time to change their eating habits to better align with their dietary ideals. Thirty-nine percent of survey respondents started eating healthier during the pandemic, and 88% say it’s important their significant other prioritizes healthy foods. 

Sales data backs this up. In the second quarter of 2020, produce sales increased 15.1%, according to a report by the United Fresh Produce Association. Organic food sales jumped 14%, increasing $1 billion in sales, according to the 2020 Organic Produce Performance Report. Packaged salads, berries, and apples saw the largest boost in organic sales dollars.  

Still, 70% of consumers are confused about GMOs, which are prohibited under the USDA’s National Organic Program, and many are unclear about what the organic label actually means in terms of how the food was produced.

This education component is key because of the influence that adults can have on the next generation. In The American Food Journey report, nearly half of parents said they make it a priority to teach their kids to be more eco-conscious at home. This is at a time when many parents are also reevaluating their kids’ nutrition, and encouraging their children to increase their intake of vegetables and other fresh foods during the pandemic. Gen Z may represent the biggest force of change in the way consumers interact with the food system. Overall, the demographic is showing demand for healthier and more convenient food, according to data from Packaged Facts. They also have a bigger appetite for organic and natural foods that are free of additives while being more likely to identify as vegetarian.