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The Future is Bright

The Future is Bright

Our understanding of competition has remained the same since the beginning of time. You create something, your neighbor creates something similar, therefore catapulting a career-long rivalry. It’s innate to the pillars of business.

What if I were to tell you that this isn’t the case? That instead of competing against each other, we could use our foothold to push back against our true competitors: those who restrict the consumption of produce by promoting unhealthy habits. I’m talking about the more traditional consumer packaged goods (CPG) snacking industry, but I cannot lay claim to this innovative concept. It comes from the mind of Rich Dachman, the CEO of Brighter Bites, following his decades of passion for pursuing a healthier world. A passion that followed him from childhood to the executive team at foodservice distributor Sysco and, finally, to the nonprofit sector.

Brighter Bites is an innovative organization dedicated to increasing produce consumption within underserved communities. With its produce distribution, nutrition education, and fun food experience formula, the nonprofit brings a variety of fresh produce to families who otherwise would not have access to it. As the program suggests, families are given nutrition education and recommendations for an enjoyable produce experience, which is then repeated weekly over an extended period of time.

I first learned of Rich’s concept of competition during a conversation about Brighter Bites’ top donor partners of 2019. Naturally, the discussion evolved into one grounded by his fierce advocacy for the produce industry. Rich is a storyteller, and sometimes, without you even knowing it, he hands you a little nugget of insight that subtly reveals a groundbreaking idea.

“I believe that, in the produce industry, we are not just competing against each other, but against the CPG snacking industry as we try and get people to eat right,” he said.

With that one line, he had my gears turning. I quickly produced a whole new slew of questions, starting with, “How is an industry so rooted in tradition supposed to pivot its mindset in such a monumental way?” According to Rich, if we tackle this effort alongside our industry counterparts, the insurmountable will soon become palpable.

“Rightfully so, the industry is interested in competing against each other. That’s what we do. But we’re taking market share from each other, not really growing consumption. I’m steadfast that, instead, we need to be taking market share from the snacking industry,” Rich explained. “Until we can figure out a central way to message and impact that consumer, it will be extremely difficult to grow market share. We’ve never figured out how to relay that centralized message. Everyone in the industry agrees that we have to increase consumption—that’s a positive for all. The more everybody consumes, the more demand there is, the more farmers can grow, and it balances that beautiful supply and demand scale that we all have to navigate on a daily basis. But it doesn’t seem like anyone really wants to take ownership of this effort to get this centralized messaging to the consumer.”

“I believe that, in the produce industry, we are not just competing against each other, but against the CPG snacking industry as we try and get people to eat right.”

Rich Dachman, Chief Executive Officer, Brighter Bites

You might ask, how does the CEO of Brighter Bites have so much knowledge to bestow around this issue? As the former Vice President of Produce for Sysco, one of the industry’s leading foodservice distributors, Rich truly cut his teeth on navigating supplier relationships. Nearly 30 years were served with this operator alone. Over time, he built a wealth of experience that has allowed him to transition and invest himself so deeply in Brighter Bites’ philanthropic mission.

Rich, however, has always seen himself as a produce purveyor, as health became an intense passion for him at a young age. Even in the early years, he was more aware than most of fresh produce varieties and uses. While millennial babies were taking their first bite of an apple, Rich was digging into his father’s loot from his job at a produce warehouse. The young Rich could identify artichokes before all of his friends, while to this day, some adults haven’t even tasted the prickly product.

Rather than simply boasting himself as an industry expert, Rich has used those experiences to encourage and educate his industry counterparts. While not all are directly adjacent to the Brighter Bites mission, Rich’s philosophy suggests that neighborliness is equally as important as making a profit. In recent years, it has become increasingly more apparent that something must be done to shift the public opinion of fresh produce consumption, and, with his neighbors in tow, Rich is just the man to lead this charge.

“The industry has to realize that it’s not just a business issue. This is a public health issue that we can correct. We at Brighter Bites try to focus on the next generation in order to reduce childhood obesity and chronic disease,” he said. “We haven’t recognized as an industry that we inherently own this preventive medicine. I understand that we want to grow consumption from a business perspective, but we all have to come to the realization that it’s more than that.”

According to a study based on youth in the U.S., when examining roughly 50 hours of children’s programming, 246 food advertisements were promoting fats and sweets. Fresh fruits and vegetables, however, were not showcased in any of the total 564 food ads shown. Looking back at my own childhood television draped in a charming rainbow of sugar, I can testify to that statistic. This alone suggests that the snacking industry has a tight grip on consumers, both young and old. Rich suggests that all of this comes down to a hefty marketing budget, which the snacking industry has in droves.

“Just like anything else, we’re going to have to figure out a way to separate ourselves from the competitive hat and put on that collaborative hat. We have to realize that this is good for everyone, and somehow come up with centralized funding, whether it be through marketing funds or otherwise, because this is an industry where you can’t do anything if you don’t pay for it,” Rich inferred. “Every major category has marketing and they all are aiming their efforts at consumers to help them grow their own category, whether it’s strawberries, stonefruit, or grapes. But we shouldn’t be doing that one category versus the other. I realize it’s expensive, but I believe there’s a payoff to what we do.”

And with that, I was reminded of the current state of our industry—one in which growers are fighting tooth and nail for that coveted market share that Rich refers to. So, how can we possibly navigate all of the challenges that are inherent between supplier relationships? This is the question that continues to circulate—the “how,” if you will. How can we logistically pool our efforts to push back against CPG’s less nutrient-based snacks? And furthermore, how can we rely on the folks who we’ve long considered to be competitors? Not even Rich has a definitive answer to this long-winded question, but he knows mountains cannot be climbed without taking that first step.

In many ways, Brighter Bites has become a platform on which this step can be taken. Rich wants to open up the conversation within the produce industry, creating space to have a dialogue around how we can move forward in a positive way.

“We give families a risk-free trial of a variety of different produce items, teach them how to eat it, and track the results. Creating produce consumers is critical, especially for younger generations. I think we’re one of the only organizations in the United States that goes the last mile by tracking dietary behaviors long-term,” Rich told me.

"The industry has to realize that it’s not just a business issue. This is a public health issue that we can correct."

While there are many initiatives that offer different resources, Rich is looking at how to change consumer eating habits through long-term education. Brighter Bites operates in communities that have low access to healthy foods, giving tens of thousands of families fresh produce and teaching them how to utilize it.

“Brighter Bites is a unique organization, and even after our families leave the program, we follow them and we’ve been able to determine that their consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables is up every day of the week, even up to a year or two after they’ve left,” Rich continued. “So, that means we’re changing behaviors and that they understand how to cook the product and the children are coming home asking for the product.”

When I look at it pragmatically, Rich has watched my generation grow up within his career in the produce industry. He’s seen us from Mickey Mouse apple packs to family-sized bags of potato chips, and picked up on where the system has failed us along the way. In response, this is his rectification of a childhood haunted by the unhealthy aspects of CPG. This is a lifetime of observation that has transformed into an industry life force.

“We may be at 135,000 individuals today, we may be at 500,000 in the next few years, and hopefully, in the future, we’ll be serving a million people,” he said. “When we do that, we’re teaching the younger generation, and their parents are following suit. That generation is then going to teach the next generation. That is the pyramid strategy that I believe will allow Brighter Bites to actually make a dent and change some of the health outcomes to a positive from a negative.”

To his delight, Rich has already seen partners start to step up, from associations to wholesale operators and foodservice companies. This further proves that neighborly values are alive and well in the produce industry. There are so many positive initiatives out there, like those generated by the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) and Produce for Better Health, that can pivot their efforts to drive home the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables to improve health outcomes.

“We want to become that meeting ground because we are all stakeholders in this industry and it is such a massive challenge,” Rich concluded.

From a few of the industry members I have spoken with, he is far from standing alone:

Cathy Burns, CEO, PMA: “Earlier this year, Nielsen found that many consumers have adopted regular snacking routines and, in some cases, they are replacing full meals with snacks. Our industry’s challenge is that the growth is occurring in indulgent snacks at a much faster rate than in produce snacks. Our Beyond Health study found that processed foods are significantly more closely associated with snack categories, while produce is more likely to be associated with meals. As an industry, we have to more effectively connect with consumers’ emotions when it comes to these eating occasions. Programs like Brighter Bites connect fresh fruits and vegetables with parents and their children and inspire and educate them on how produce can be an important part of their everyday lives.”

Vic Smith, Owner and CEO, JV Smith Companies: “I recently had the opportunity to tour a Brighter Bites distribution operation in Houston, Texas, and see firsthand the amazing power of this idea. It was an elementary school that brought young children in with their parents to receive free produce. But what was offered was much more. There was an interaction with the Brighter Bites staff, volunteer teachers, and volunteer parents. The staff and teachers were offering good nutritional advice and recipes for the fresh produce being distributed. The excitement generated there was impressive and contagious. I sensed this was a great opportunity to interest the children in much better choices for meals and snacks. I came away with a strong desire to support this program in any way that I could. It serves so many good purposes—developing better eating behaviors for our children while helping reduce childhood obesity. And, of course, it is creating more consumption for the most healthy, nutritious food we grow: fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Tim York, President, Markon Cooperative: “Brighter Bites is a tremendous opportunity for our industry to collectively address health and wellness, food waste, and sustainability. The educational program that is a component of Brighter Bites leads to a more diverse diet and increased consumption of fruits and vegetables, which means the potential for improved health. The fresh produce industry has always been generous, and Brighter Bites is an opportunity for it to demonstrate its continued commitment. Rich’s ability to grow Brighter Bites’ influence and reach is only limited by the willingness of our industry to work together. I don’t know of a better way for us all to work together to help underserved communities and create new demand for our products. We all win when we work together for the greater good, and I look forward to supporting the industry’s broad participation in Brighter Bites.”

After just a short time in this industry, I’ve come to know a handful of things as true. First, fresh fruit and vegetable growers are in tight competition. Second, our number one goal as an industry is to increase the consumption of produce. Third, we have the immeasurable ability to shift the way that consumers view food. And fourth, Rich is one of the few voices who can pull competitors into the same fold.

It’s strikingly clear to me now that consumers deserve more from us. Brighter Bites is the budding meeting ground for this monumental goal, so there’s no excuse to journey onward in the same way that we always have. It’s time to step up, challenge each other, and ask the questions that still don’t have answers. Most importantly, we must become familiar with the discomfort that is inherent to change.

Because, as the old adage goes, there is truly no time like the present.