I once saw a bumper sticker that said, "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance". I believe we are at a point in our industry where we are about to find out just how costly ignorance can be.
Why should this concerns us? Many traditionally conventional wholesalers and retailers are seeking to provide their customers an organic produce program. They are beginning staff training about organic agriculture. They are recognizing that the double-digit growth in organic food we've experienced in the past decade (10% to 12% in fresh produce) isn't just a fad but a viable market force.
Now let's look at another side of the picture. I was working recently in a Midwestern co-op when I overheard a conversation between a produce clerk and a customer. The clerk didn't have the information on horseradish that the customer needed, which can be understandable with a part-time clerk. But he could have gone a step further by offering to ask someone else or to look it up and get back to the customer. When I realized this wasn't going to happen, I entered the conversation, answered the question and suggested the customer wait until spring when organic horseradish becomes available. The customer told me with a matter of fact tone that "everything in this department is organic," and that food he bought at the co-op was better for you. Such perceptions are all too common among natural food shoppers.
In the natural food business we have chosen to carry many products that provide our communities with better quality, safer, environmentally friendly and socially just food. If we restrict our organic food conversation to price only and not quality and sustainability, then we all lose. We must make sure our current and incoming staff are well educated so they can give the customer reliable and up to date information. Can you say your employees are up to date on current organic standards, GMOs, irradiation, and local farming issues?
If you carry conventional produce, do your signs clearly distinguish organic from conventional? In many chain stores it is difficult to tell the difference.
In a recent survey by the Natural Marketing Institute, consumers cited the most important reasons for choosing a place to shop: 78% said that "buying healthy foods was the single most important whole health choice they can make," and 72% said that "a knowledgeable staff makes them choose one store over another, giving staff expertise an equal importance with price." "Most of all they want answers to questions about feeding themselves and their families..."
We can look at this as a quandary or an opportunity. I say it's a golden opportunity to get off our laurels and maintain our position as the best food source in the community. But whose job is it to educate staff and customers? Ours, of course! We all spend time training our new employees how to prep, rotate, cull, merchandise and provide customer service. We need to provide our staff with the latest on the organic standards, G.O.R.P (Good Organic Retail Practices), the benefits of working with local growers, seasonality, GMOs and irradiation.
If you're wondering how you can afford to do this, try to reverse your thinking and ask how can we afford not to do it? Start with your staff. They need to become ambassadors of the organic food they sell. Create handouts that answer basic questions. Bring in farmers to tell their story. I often do fresh food seminars with a crew to start this process. I believe you open people's hearts by putting good food in their mouths. This also creates the excitement to learn about these subjects. Build a library to make information accessible.
I would be glad to fax or e-mail a list of books to start a department library. The Organic Trade Association has an excellent web site (www.ota.com) and a lot of valuable materials. The Organic Alliance is also a great source for materials. C.A.F.F. (Community Alliance with Family Farms) has an excellent resource, The National Organic Directory.