A top executive with the Whole Foods Market grocery chain urges consumers to increase fruit and vegetable consumption, declaring that “produce is the right product at the right time” to help reduce obesity in the U.S.

Walter Robb, Whole Foods’ co-chief executive officer, says, “The ultimate answer to the (obesity) crisis is not a pill or operation – it’s taking more responsibility for your diet. One part of that is fruit and vegetables.”

Nutrient-packed fruits and vegetables on the plate can help nip and tuck the growing obesity epidemic in the U.S.

Robb delivered the pro-produce message to about 5,000 produce industry members during the 2013 United Fresh convention held in San Diego, Calif. in May. United Fresh membership includes growers-packers, wholesalers-distributors, fresh-cut processors, and retail food service.

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The Whole Foods leader said the nation’s health care crisis is on a financial collision course. About $3 trillion is spent annually on health care.

“This is simply unsustainable,” Robb said. “Many doctors tell me that a lot of (health) conditions begin with obesity.”

As health care costs have risen, Robb added, the amount of disposable income for food has decreased.

Robb stopped short of calling produce a miracle food, yet said produce is an important component of a healthier diet.

“The produce industry has the right product for the right time,” Robb declared. “We’re at a crossroads with the health care and nutrition crises. Fruits and vegetables are clearly the way forward.”  

A mainstay at Whole Foods Market is the sale of fresh fruits and vegetables. The company operates 350 stores and the franchise is quickly expanding, with expansion investments in the 8-9 percent range this year and next.  

Kale: the hot-selling vegetable

While the produce business seeks to expand produce sales, fresh fruit and vegetable consumption has remained relatively flat over the last decade. This is changing, according to Mary Zischke of the California Leafy Greens Research Program. She reports an uptick in leafy green sales in recent years.

Sales of the leafy green vegetable kale have soared through the roof – about a 2,000 percent increase, according to United Fresh.

“Kale (consumption) is on fire,” Robb boasted.

Kale has green or purple leaves, rich in beta carotene, Vitamin K, calcium, and Vitamin C.

Robb shared data from the National Cancer Institute which suggests fruit and vegetables can help prevent cancer due to phytochemicals in the produce.

Nutritious food is not about the caloric content, Robb says. It is about nutrition density in the product.

“Leafy greens are at the very top of the list. Kale is number one,” Robb said.

Robb, an entrepreneur, spent his early career at wholesale produce markets in the early morning hours.

“As a produce person, I started out in 1977 in my own store and used to trim my own produce.”

Robb joined Whole Foods Market in 1991 where he owned and operated the Mill Valley, Calif. store until 1993.

Later as president of the chain’s Northern Pacific region, the region grew from two to 17 stores including four acquisitions. He was promoted several more times, including the co-CEO position in 2010.

Robb overseas purchasing, marketing, distribution, and quality standards for the company.

Future of the food chain

The grocery leader offered insight into the future of grocery stores. Robb quoted a magazine article which suggested that the millennial generation (Generation Y) – those born from the early 1980s to the early 2000s – will make 30 percent of all retail grocery purchases by 2020.

A continuing trend is consumers’ thirst for knowledge about where their food comes from, learning the name of the farmer who grew the crop, gleaning information on different fruit varieties, and why the grower chose to grow a variety over other choices.

Robb said, “Customers want to know why you selected a variety and what makes it different. This is another opportunity to develop your repertoire.”

“This is truly a food revolution,” Robb added. “More customers are interested in their food, where it comes from, who is growing it, how it is grown, and how to cook it.”

Robb offered advice to the food-to-fork crowd - continue to evolve - evolve - evolve. The marketplace, customer, and technology continue to change. Be willing to continually change, keep an open mind, learn, and grow.”

Robb said the farm-to-fork food chain should focus on food-based health education. For example, Whole Foods conducts cooking classes in its stores. This helps the customer and markets the store brand.

“We want to make it clear to our customers that we want to be the healthiest grocer in the marketplace.”

Robb noted, “There is a new fascination with cooking. Ultimately if you want to be healthy you have to cook. You have to learn about the ingredients and how to prepare them. The renaissance around cooking and food shows is very exciting.”

Another focus point is the quality and taste of food products. Ultimately, this sells a product, he says. Some grocery stores and health clubs offer juice bars.

“Juice is ‘in’ right now and is on fire.”

Another point Robb made is that consumers expect transparency and traceability.

“Clearly the customer expects their food to be safe.”

Food safety is job one in the field, packing shed, warehouse, transportation, and the grocery store.

“Food safety continues to keep me up at night,” Robb shared. “It takes just one situation to set us (the industry) back.”

Nothing wrong with 'Big Ag'

Robb was asked about his thoughts about farms, processors, and other businesses in the food chain getting larger in size to economically survive. He acknowledged that Whole Foods, itself, plans to almost triple its number of its stores – from its current 350 markets to about 1,000 stores.

“There is nothing wrong with being a big company,” Robb said. “People give ‘big’ a bad name."

He added, “It is all about your compass and your action. We need all-sized companies.”

An advantage of a larger company is the ability to financially deal with challenges.

Robb concluded, “Just because you are a small company doesn’t make you better than a big company. It is what you are doing with the size and how you contribute to a better world.”

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