Coloring Between Holiday Tradition And Everyday

Later this month, American families like mine will sit down together for a Thanksgiving holiday dinner — one with turkey piled high on the plate served with perennial favorite side dishes including stuffing and mashed potatoes, followed by pumpkin pie. Mine will also have spinach casserole, steamed broccoli, fresh mushroom and onion gravy and more. Few meals in this country are as traditional as an American Thanksgiving.

For me, the tradition is still fairly new:

Time: my first Thanksgiving dinner, 1977

Place: a University of Chicago faculty member’s home in Hyde Park, on Chicago’s south side

Reason: I was a fresh-off-the-plane overseas graduate student with nowhere else to go — and no idea of what, or to whom, thanks were being given

State of mind: bewilderment beforehand, indigestion afterward

So this holiday provides the perfect backdrop to update you on a new initiative for the produce and foodservice sectors to significantly change other traditional meals: ones served away from home. I first wrote about the initiative here in May, right after it was announced by Produce Marketing Association (PMA), National Restaurant Association and International Foodservice Distributors Association (IFDA). We now have concrete and exciting news to share from the project, as detailed in a new two-part report.

The first part summarizes research conducted for the partners by National Restaurant Association’s research group in April and June. That research included a quantitative survey of a nationwide sample of 500 restaurant operators with fresh produce purchasing authority and qualitative interviews with 10 major chains’ purchasing executives.

The research found that opportunities abound to increase fresh produce use on restaurant menus. Produce is already seen as a way to draw diners and to differentiate one’s operation from its competition. More than 40 percent plan to serve more produce in the next two years; 56 percent will serve at least the same amount.

Yet unfilled demand remains; a majority of operators said they wish they had more fresh produce options, and three-fifths noted they wished there was more information on how to incorporate fresh produce on their menu. Top interests include local sourcing and food safety.

The second part of the report documents an “executive think tank” discussion of leading produce, operator and distributor executives convened by the associations in late July to discuss the operator research. Our panel set a goal to double produce usage in foodservice by 2020, and identified five priority strategies to work toward that goal:

• Re-imagine the restaurant experience, with produce having a stronger presence and telling its story from field-to-fork;

• Increase consumer confidence in fresh produce, including product safety, trust, and integrity;

• Demonstrate social responsibility, balancing the needs of people, the planet, and profitability;

• Foster closer collaboration among the industry sectors, including operators, distributors and grower/shippers;

• Foster closer collaboration with government and other stakeholders.

The think tank panel report documents the panel’s day-long gathering, including analysis of the forces working for and against increased produce usage in foodservice; a rationale for setting an ambitious goal to galvanize action; discussion of the five strategies.

This portion of the report details some of the discussion the group members had along the way, including the importance of telling industry’s story, the role of an increasingly regional food system, and that a one-size-fits-all solution won’t work across a diverse foodservice industry with 70 categories. The executives also stressed the need to better define collaborating as much more than just reporting — working together to find mutual solutions, rather than talking at each other.

The work of the new Foodservice 2020 Steering Committee we’re creating to bring our three associations together won’t be easy given our goal: to focus on the five priority areas and thus drive changes within the foodservice sector that will double produce use in the next decade.

Changing the traditional Thanksgiving meal is not our target. Our future will not be made of choices that are “either/or” but will be filled with many that are “both/and” — let’s learn to color between the extremities. Occasional gluttony observed as family and societal tradition is as old as humankind. But driving food choices to reflect changing consumer demands and needs on most other days of the year is a recognition that we can shape what we offer most of the time — for healthier menus, healthier consumers, and healthier business.

I wish you and your families a joyous and healthful Thanksgiving holiday.