Field to Plate – Teaching taste to dietitians

This time of year for many of us is a celebration of the senses, with the many in-season produce possibilities: sweet, chin-dripping peaches, fresh and rich flavored corn, aromatic melons that take the place of a meal on a hot summer night, or tomatoes so tasty that every region of the country swears that theirs are the best.

So strong is the food connection to seasonal delights that our favorite fruit or vegetable is often the first thing we mention when asked about a season. This is good news for our organic produce departments. Organic produce is still the leading category in total organic sales: 40 percent or more, depending on which study you read. Organic sales have been doubling every 3.5 years, and the growth isn’t expected to slow down any time soon. How could it get any better?

Well, the truth is the next wave of growth is going to come from mainstream shoppers. And believe it or not, we are not the norm in this country. Many of today’s consumers barely eat one serving of fresh fruits and vegetables a day, let alone the recommended five or more a day. A wide range of people look at eating as what is quickest to make, most convenient, or simply what will fill the void NOW.

For many people, there isn’t a strong connection or relationship with their food. How are we going to get them to care about sustainability, keeping farmers on the land, or biodiversity—let alone to know what’s in season or look forward to what each season has to offer?

A couple of years ago I teamed up with Amanda Archibald, a dietitian from Washington D.C., to see how we could help reverse this trend. During a conversation at Expo West we realized that one partnership that was sorely underutilized was that between retailers and dietitians.

We started with dietitians, recognizing that they hold a lot of power when it comes to helping their clients better their diets. Most of their clients take their word verbatim when it comes to brands to buy or places to purchase what would be most beneficial for them. But there is one small problem: dietitians are schooled in the math and science of nutrition but not in the language of flavor or seasonality of food.

So we started a program called Field to Plate, where we teach these health professionals how to have a conversation with their clients about the joys of eating fresh apples, for example, rather than just the fact that they provide a good source of soluble fiber. Basically, we want to help them look beyond the science, food labels, and dietary guidelines so they can have conversations about flavor.

We do this by sharing locally grown (when available) seasonal food with them; while eating we start having a dialog about flavor and food memories. We take the conversation further than attributes such as good, sweet and tasty, blue, red, green, to comments such as “savory,” “syrupy,” “tastes like sunshine, “or “reminds me of grandma’s backyard.” We even had one group in Columbus, Ohio, asking to take home bottles of Spectrum flax oils after they tried them with artisan breads, strawberries, and asparagus.

The results have been amazing. We’ve heard countless testimonials from professionals of how their practices have changed for the better. One dietitian came back to the conference the next day to tell us how her cancer patients, whom she formerly couldn’t get to eat anything fresh, were now eating pixie tangerines because of her change in dialog and new fresh approach. One by one, we are helping to create individual food experiences that excite people about the food they choose to eat, every day.

Is the co-op ready?

Where do co-ops come into the picture? Well, these dietitians have to shop somewhere, right? It might as well be your co-op. Because if they shop there, you can bet they will recommend it to their clients.

However, during our seminars, once we have them excited about fresh, we often hear such statements as, “This is great, but:
• “When I go shopping after work there is never anyone in the produce department to help me!”
• “How do I know what’s in season?”
• “How do I pick out the best produce?”

There are some opportunities here for co-ops everywhere. A place to start is by contacting your local dietetic association (nearly every state has one), or by obtaining a list from the American Dietetic Association: ADA, 120 South Riverside Plaza, #2000, Chicago, IL 60606-6995. 800/877-1600. www.eatright.org

You can also look into other alternative nutrition resources such the Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group: www.HENdpg.org

Remember, this a new idea for a lot of folks, so you may have to lay some of the groundwork in your area.
• Offer to do produce department walkthroughs for them and their clients
• Once you find an ally, ask if they would be willing to do nutritional workshops in the store.
• Be willing to share your knowledge of produce and flavor with the local association.
• Recognize the role you play in the food system. For most people the place they shop is the closest connection they have to their food. This is a tremendous responsibility to uphold. There are mediocre produce departments all over the country—don’t let yours be one of them. Raise the bar, and be an example of how it should be done.

Be part of a fresh food revolution

Start a sampling program—not just on an occasional basis but as a daily routine. This is as important as setting your department everyday. It will help develop a trust and relationship within your department for all your customers, old and new. “You have to get it in their mouths if you want to open their ears.” Even some of the best produce departments know they can do a better job in this area.

Make sure the folks you have working at the peak business hours know how to choose good produce. Perhaps you as manager should work one dinner shift a week to see just how valuable your knowledge is at this time of day.

Always have the best to offer

Train your crew in seasonality. There are many great tools available to use in this area. Some may already be used in your deli or marketing department. One is the Savor the Season program that is used in Midwest co-op stores but not necessarily in all of the produce departments. The program is available to co-ops nationwide and includes bi-monthly recipes, a list of what’s in season, and what’s available. For more information contact Chris Ryding at [email protected].
Learn to speak the language of flavor yourself. We all have it in us—it just isn’t used as often as it should be.

Co-ops are often looking for the next opportunity to grow our businesses, strengthen our communities, build relationships, and create a healthier consumer. Opportunity is knocking, and your local dietitians and nutritionists are an excellent resource tap.

For more information on the Field to Plate program or seasonal information, go to www.fieldtoplate.com —or these other beneficial sites:
www.localharvest.org
www.foodroutes.org/localfood/
www.nutrition.cornell.edu/foodguide/default.html
www.slowfood.com

See other articles from this issue: #113 July - August - 2004