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Will interest in immunity boost produce sales?

According to the United Nations, 2021 is the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables. Many could not care less about a proclamation from a global agency that has been criticized over the years as being inner-looking and out of touch. Some of this criticism is certainly warranted, but depending on the topic, these campaigns can bring a healthy load of success and change.

2016 was the International Year of Pulses. At the time, consumers were starting to correlate food choices with environmental stewardship. Context helped shine some light on what Canada’s most overlooked crop was: pulses. Slowly, not only is Canada becoming a super vegetable protein powerhouse, but consumers are also buying into it. In 2020, plant-based sales grew 31% in Canada, even amid the pandemic.

Highlighting fruits and vegetables this year can assist the UN’s ambitions to advocate for the importance of healthy diets and lifestyles through sustainable food systems. With COVID-19, our collective fight with this virus went from keeping safe to achieving immunity. Collective immunity has been top-of-mind for many people of late, given our acute focus on how vaccines are being rolled out.

The best medicine, virus or not, is nutrition. One of the major pieces to building a strong immunity system is by eating more fruits and vegetables. If one country needs to be reminded of that it is certainly Canada. In 2021, despite volatile prices, 41% of Canadians intend to increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables compared to 46% in 2019. Canadians did buy more fruits and vegetables at retail, but they bought more of other food categories as well.

According to NielsenIQ, vegetable sales in Canada increased 7% in volume and 13% in dollars last year. The same happened with fruit--unit sales were up 5%, and 7% in dollars. Restaurants are not a significant market for fruits, so lower percentages are not surprising. In volume, Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia all saw sales going up in volume by 8% for vegetables, and 6% for fruits. The lowest increase for both categories was in the Maritimes, 2% for vegetables and only 1% for fruits. Those figures are disappointingly low.

Most products experienced tremendous growth in retail sales in 2020. Tomatoes were the most popular type of produce, as sales grew nearly 28% in dollars. Since some were still looking for convenience, bagged vegetables grew 25.8% in the last 52 weeks. In fruits, oranges saw the biggest increase in sales with 21.4%, followed by cherries (20.3%) and lemons (19.7%). Dollar sales of both celery and peach dropped in 2020, but this is likely because prices dropped below 2019 levels. Highly publicized recalls also impacted some categories this past year, mainly peaches and lettuce. Numbers suggest onions dodged a bullet in 2020 as they too were subject to a recall.

But, these numbers may be a mirage. People cooked at home more often and required more produce from the grocery store. However, unit sales for tomatoes only grew 6%. Almost one in five Canadians started a garden at home in 2020, and many grew tomatoes. Still, the numbers aren't impressively high, considering restaurants have been closed through a majority of the pandemic. Figures from NielsenIQ suggest we may not be buying and eating more produce, at least not yet. Since March 2020, it has all been about baking, snacking, and indulging to simply overlook the awfulness of the pandemic.

As suggested by Canada’s Food Guide, fruits and vegetables are vital components for achieving quality of life and a stronger immune system amid the pandemic. Also, recalls and highly volatile retail prices spook consumers all the time, which is why many consider the most vulnerable section of the grocery store.

Declaring 2021 as the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables is both timely and important. As more governments investigate food autonomy as being a priority for our post-COVID era, building awareness of the consumption of produce will be parallel. Building capacity through controlled-environment agriculture products in Canada can only make our produce supply chains less vulnerable to macro-factors like currency and scaled bacterial outbreaks. We also desperately need to take care of our immune systems. Reminding us of the importance of eating enough produce benefits everyone.

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