Thursday, 20 February 2014

How Processed Food Marketers Get to Your Children

The reason that SWEFM first came into existence was to create a vehicle for community. What the
original organizers very quickly came to realize was that a farmer’s market was a perfect setting in which people could come together, form valuable connections with each other, meaningful connections with their food and with the artisans who created beautiful items, and connections with their local community. Not only could they support the local economy with their purchases, the people who came to the market could also support each other.

In our neck of the woods, bursting to the seams as it is with young families, it also became a perfect place for families to come together and to spend time with each other, building memories and a history of shared experiences. Add to that fun & tasty reasons to stay there for a long time… from the food trucks to the balloon busker, from the face painter and musical buskers to the huge inflatable slide, from the tempting produce to the delicious take-home baking… and it soon became obvious to many that our farmers’ market had become a destination.

Through the blog posts we have also come to realize that the market is also a terrific vehicle for education… teaching people about their food… how to cook and prepare simple, healthy, nutritious home cooked meals; how to know more about how the food you put on your plate is raised ethically, sustainably and perhaps, even organically; how to add simplicity into your daily healthy living routine; and what healthy eating is and can be.

In that vein, we are planning an exciting new kids’ program this year… one that will support your
efforts as parents to teach your kids how to embrace a healthy, nutritious and fun approach to their food. More details will follow soon as we’re working very hard to get grants lined up and sponsorships in place. Know that it will encourage your children to try and to eat healthy fruits and vegetables. Know that it is something that will help to support you, as a parent, in your efforts to raise your children in a healthy, nutritious environment. Know that it will empower them to make good choices in their young lives.

Lately I have been catching up on a few podcasts that I enjoy listening to, and back in December, CBC aired an episode of “Ideas” that I found absolutely fascinating. In it, Jill Eisen explored the politics, economics and science of overeating. It was called “Stuffed Part 1” and you can follow this link to listen to the entire episode (I highly recommend listening to it in its entirety)… CBC-Ideas with Paul Kennedy “Stuffed, Part 1,” by Jill Eisen

What I have learned there, about the ways that marketers of processed food reach out and ensnare the appetites, attention and focus of us.. and even more alarmingly, of our children… is extremely fascinating. I thought I’d share a few of their findings here… some of these things you may already know, but some you may find surprising:

1)            The more we process food, the less nutritious it becomes.

2)            The more we process food, the more energy-dense it becomes (think higher in calories per bite or sip and lower in fiber, antioxidants and a whole lot of other vitamins and nutrients). In 1970, 3200 calories a day were purchased by the average person in the US. By 1990, that number rose to 3900 calories per day…. This represents way more calories than a normal person should consume in an day.

3)            Processing foods has made food products highly attractive to us as it adds sugar, fat and salt for taste and preservative reasons… we are, afterall, creatures that have evolved to love and crave salt, fat & sugar. Evolutionarily speaking, foods high in sugar, especially in the form of refined carbohydrates, allow us to get glucose into the blood stream faster, and that, in turn, equips our bodies for the flight or fright survival instincts with which we are better apt to survive. We are wired to crave it.

4)            Grain is the basis (whether through sugar or oil) of most processed foods. When governments began subsidizing grain-based foods (think anything with high fructose corn syrup… items such as pops, snack foods, breads & pastries) and doing nothing for the healthier foods (produce such as raw fruits & vegetables & legumes), a flood of calories saturated the grocery store shelves, and these unhealthy products also came to those shelves at a very low, very attractive price point.

5)            Since 1980, thanks in part to this subsidization, there was a huge oversupply and saturation of the market in processed, grain-based foods. We humans are nothing if not clever and quick to seize an opportunity to turn a profit, and manufacturers and inventors came up with brilliant ways to make new foods out of these cheaper, subsidized food sources. The end result was that the price of produce went up 40% while the cost of pop went down 7%. So government policy has supported the grain-based foods at the expense of healthier, whole foods like fruits and veggies.

6)            As a result, there was a growing disparity in the price between what can be loosely called healthy whole foods and their unhealthy processed food counterparts.

7)            Our eating follows the dollar very closely.

8)            When Reagan came into power in the US, he brought with him a sweeping deregulatory agenda. And one of the things that was deregulated was marketing… and in particular, marketing to children (how it could happen, when it could happen, where it could happen, and how often it could happen).

9)            At the same time (post baby boom), food companies had to find new markets for their products… with the North American population remaining relatively stable, the only way they could meet growth and profitability targets was to find new markets, and to encourage us to consume more of their products.

10)         Children were that new market, and the deregulation atmosphere changed things significantly. Food marketing has always been directed to children, but it changed significantly in the 1980’s to be a deliberate & direct focus of advertisers: they put cartoons on food packages, increased the number of times that children’s food commercials aired on television and increasingly put marketing in the places where children are (eg. at eye level in the grocery stores or at the height where they’d see it sitting in a shopping cart). According to this episode of “Ideas,” “the average child in North America sees 10,000 food ads on TV and many more directed just to them on social media each year.”

11)         The processed food industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year in North America, targeting children. The governments spend an insignificant fraction of that amount on encouraging people to lead healthy, active lives. As a result, we get almost no aid competing with the misleading agenda of the processed food advertisers.

12)         Children are a captive audience & easy to reach.

13)         If you can induce brand loyalty... get a child to prefer a particular brand… that preference may continue throughout their life.

14)         There’s the highly effective pester factor at work… getting a child to know and prefer a product by brand name and pester the parents to buy branded foods when he or she sees it in the store.

15)         And then there is, perhaps, the most insidious aspect of marketing to children… according to Mary Ann Nestle, “marketers want children to believe that branded foods with cartoons on them are foods designed for children, foods made especially for them… they’re kids foods.. they’re what they’re supposed to be eating. Not the boring foods that their parents are eating. This is a complete undermining of parental authority around food issues and a highly successful strategy.”

According to Michael Polan, the diet of the average North American child is 70% junk food and 30%
is real food, some of which is healthy. Of that 30%, some of it is milk, some of it is fruits and vegetables, some of it is meat and other “healthy” things. The most popular category in the diet of the typical North American child is what’s called “grain based desserts”… including granola and cereal bars , breakfast cereals, baking, sweetened yogurts & icecreams… basically, anything using high fructose corn syrup), then sugary beverages, then salty snacks… and only after all those categories do children consume a healthy food item like milk.

Admittedly, a farmers’ market has its unhealthy temptations… kettle popcorn, cupcakes, chocolate,
pastries, candies, hot dogs and sno-cones… but it also has a ton of healthy, vibrantly coloured, densely nutritious and visually attractive fruits and vegetables, whole grain baking, and wonderfully tasty & inventive & healthy food truck offerings as well. It is a place devoid of the kinds of marketing that this episode of “Ideas” finds so insidious. It is a place where you can reclaim your parental authority around food issues and eating. It is a place where you can model healthy eating. It is a place without processed foods that are directly marketed with cartoon characters to your children. It is a place where you can access a wealth of whole foods. It is a place where you can find support in your parenting journey…. At the Southwest Edmonton farmers’ Market, we will be helping you down this path. Stay tuned…

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Contributed by Sheri Hendsbee

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Farmers Markets are Incubators

I'm working on writing a larger article that I hope will get picked up by a media outlet with an impressive audience, but in the mean time I thought I'd share some of the information I'm finding with you here because it is really fascinating.

Working behind the scenes at the Southwest Edmonton Farmers' Market, I'm starting to really understand how our local food system works. From farmer/grower to farmers' market, to restaurants and food trucks, to local stores and big grocery chains... and somewhere along the way onto your plate... it is a fascinating and complex system.

Farmers markets are incubators for small businesses. They act as a testing ground for products and for ideas. They are safe places to begin a business. Some vendors are content to stay at the market level, while others see it as a leaping ground… a place from which they can establish a valuable clientele and launch themselves into the big leagues, once they are picked up by larger businesses or open a store front themselves.

Many vendors, whether they be selling produce, meat, prepared food or craft items start at farmers’ markets and never leave. They are content to maintain connections with their customers, keep their operations smaller and more manageable, and avoid paying the middleman, so they see more of their profit. Many start there, love it, and never leave it.

Janelle of Riverbend Gardens

Attending multiple farmers’ markets, as Janelle Herbert of Riverbend Gardens does, creates a hard, demanding life. When asked what the biggest hurdles were when attending multiple farmers’ markets, Janelle said, “Capacity! Having your head in more than one place at a time.” And then there are the organizational challenges of staffing many markets, some of which occur all over the map on the same day. There are long days to put in with a lot of travel, a lot of set up and take down manual labour, a lot of work spent preparing goods for market, and a lot of time spent standing in very inclement weather…. not to mention, in the case of Riverbend Gardens, all of the planting, harvesting and nurturing their crops, maintaining the land, managing a staff of labourers, and dealing with a city’s land expansionist visions, processes and plans… to endure. 

Vendors who sell at multiple farmers markets have to be strong, hearty people! As Eileen Kotowich, Farmers’ Market Specialist at Alberta Agriculture says, “You have to love the market channel to stay in it for years and years.” And yet many chose this life, never desiring to move into large-scale production. Never wanting to lose touch with their loyal customers. Never wanting to lose control over their product’s quality or the integrity of their creative vision.

Ron & Teena of TR Greenhouses
There are also some who dabble in both ends of the food system spectrum: they still attend large farmers’ markets, but they also step up their production to meet the demands of big business agriculture. Eileen gave me the example of Doef’s Greenhouses (at the City Market & Old Strathcona). They, along with TR Greenhouses from our market (& Old Strathcona), are part of Pic ‘N Pac, a trio of greenhouse growers that supply hot house vegetables to local grocery store chains like Save On Foods. In 2008, before their large expansion, a whopping 85% of Doef’s business that came from their 11 acres of greenhouses went to the big retail food chain markets. They sold a mere 15% of their produce at farmers’ markets that year. But an astounding 25-30% of their profit came from those farmers’ markets… not from the large store, retail contracts. Selling directly to consumers, a grower retain far more of the profit.

This is one of the reasons why it is so important to support your local farmers’ market. The money that you spend there is money that stays in the local economy and doesn’t go to huge retailers whose head offices may be in other cities, provinces or even countries.

Eggplants at TR Greenhouse's Stall at the
Southwest Edmonton Farmers' Market
Another interesting part of Doef’s story is their eco-friendly pest control involving growing eggplants. According to Deborah O'Connell of the Grower Talks article, "Using Plants to Fight Pests," eggplants are grown as an eco-friendly way to manage whitefly populations in contained environments like greenhouses. Eggplants act as trap plants, luring whiteflies away from the tomatoes, peppers, beans and cucumbers that the vegetable greenhouse growers in Alberta grow. Doef’s doesn’t raise enough eggplant to sell them commercially, so they need a smaller market to sell what Eileen calls “their odds & sods.” Farmers’ Markets create this opportunity for them. And what that means for us as consumers, is that we get to experience more variety.

The Mallow Fellow's marshmallow treats
Jewels By Amy's sets

Some businesses use farmers’ markets, not just as a way of selling individual products to market shoppers, but as a way of breaking into the profitable niche market of wedding planning. It allows them the opportunity to take their selling up a level,
Violet Chocolate Wedding Truffles
while not taking on the financial risk of opening their own store-front. Two vendors from The Southwest Edmonton Farmers’ Market create items that are used as party favours for wedding receptions. The Mallow Fellow creates custom-flavoured, custom-coloured marshmallow treats for reception place settings. Rebecca, of the Violet Chocolate Company, creates decadent and spectacularly beautiful chocolate truffles for the same purpose. Yet another vendor, Jewels By Amy, creates necklace, earring & bracelet sets for brides and bridesmaids, custom created to suit the dress colours and tastes of the wedding party. The markets are used as an ordering and pick-up place, saving them delivery time and saving them having to use their own homes as places of business.

Evangeline of El Mercado Tortillas (on right)
Farmers markets, like our Southwest Edmonton Farmers' Market, can be incubators of sorts for businesses that want to start off small, test the waters, get immediate feedback on their products, have an agreeable audience for the reworking of their products or ideas, build a customer base and then grow big, moving into a larger store once they’re ready. El Mercado Tortillas is a good example. Evangeline Lopez began her business supplying some restaurants like Tres Carnales and the Southwest Edmonton Farmers’ Market with her authentic Mexican corn tortillas. Part way through the season, she realized that she had made a big enough name for herself so that there was a large demand for her product that would involve stepping up her production. Now her tortillas are found in many South and Central American grocery stores, like Mi Casa Market, Tienda Salvadorena, Paraiso Tropical, Argyll Foods Tienda Latina and places like Acme Meat Market, the Italian Centre Shop and Gluten Free Mart… all here in Edmonton.

For any businesses wanting to follow this route, there is a lot of support. Alberta Agriculture has a Market Development Team that works with people across the province to help them meet their ultimate goal of getting into a larger retail store. As Eileen says, many of the big chains are “looking for products that are retail ready” and Alberta Agriculture is ready to help a vendor get to that stage:
  • Darcy Peters (780-638-4756) has a lot of experience getting growers, farmers and food producers into grocery stores. Save On Foods is an excellent example of a large-scale chain that is actively searching out local produce, meats & value-added foods for its shelves and aisles. Darcy can help coach you through that process, teaching you about the requirements of stepping up that production and giving tips and tricks about what the large store buyers are looking for. 
  • Nicole Schroth (780-643-1003) specializes in helping vendors get their produce, meat and products into the food service industry… from restaurants through to institutions (like Northlands).
Farmers’ Markets play an essential role in the health of our local food system and, lucky for us all, they are on the rise. The 2010-11 Alberta season saw 104 markets spread across the province. As of last year, that number had increased dramatically to 131 markets. The support is out there. We are all becoming more consumer savvy… we know where to get good quality, locally produced goods, we know how to vote with our dollar and support the local economy, and we are starting to see the impact of the decisions we make about where and how we shop.

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Contributed by Sheri Hendsbee