RSDP Happenings - Focus: Stocking Freshness and Abundance
By Elizabeth Braatz
How do I store fresh asparagus? Why has my avocado shipment gone gray? When are my watermelon beyond saleable? These are questions that owners of small, rural grocery stores may ask when facing the challenges of increased customer demands for a wide variety of fresh, local produce.
After extensive research, face-to-face talks, and consultations, a team of University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP) staff created Minnesota’s first Fresh Produce Toolkit. The toolkit helps rural grocery store owners store, handle, and market fresh produce as well as locally grown produce.
The idea started when RSDP staff took note that rural grocery store owners often didn’t have the produce managers that larger stores had. In addition to all the other tasks required to run a grocery store, the basic care and display of the produce cooler was another item for these grocers to tend. A review of the literature and outreach to contacts within the grocery community soon found that basic information on the care and display of produce was not available.
In order to fill that gap, and thanks to generous funding from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Block Grant, RSDP staff began working with the Department of Horticultural Science to create a toolkit on the ideal temperatures and techniques to store fresh produce. The project team decided to conduct a survey of rural grocery store owners and managers to better understand their needs. RSDP Statewide Director Kathy Draeger led the creation of this comprehensive survey of grocer needs, which was inspired, in part, by a statewide survey conducted by the Kansas State University Rural Grocery Initiative.
“We hadn’t done something like this before in Minnesota, and the survey gave us a comprehensive picture of rural grocery ownership across the state,” said Karen Lanthier, RSDP Assistant Program Director for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems. “Working on this [toolkit] project led to conducting the survey, and then that in turn helped make the toolkit project even better.”
Thanks to the 2015 Rural Grocery Survey, RSDP learned about the top concerns for local grocery store owners. Chief among these was food freshness. For example, 91 percent of survey respondents found that selling produce before it deteriorated was a challenge (Draeger, Lanthier, Mohr, & Tremper, 2016).
Survey results were shared with a statewide audience through a series of fact sheets authored by Draeger, Lanthier, and colleagues. After reviewing findings, toolkit project team members (Lanthier, RSDP’s Greg Schweser, and Extension Postharvest Horticulturist Dr. Cindy Tong) began creating materials to address fresh produce and local food issues identified by the survey.
Image from the Quick Reference Guide that is part of the Fresh Produce Toolkit suite of resources.
The team conducted five demonstration events at local grocery stores in partnership with Ryan Pesch (Extension) and Matt Olson (Mississippi Market). Pesch and Olson were able to share valuable first-hand green grocer experience during the events. Each of these events began with a presentation on handling fresh produce, followed by a tour of the store. The presentations were very well received. One post-event survey responder commented, “The demo stoked the fire inside me to continue to promote and support our neighbors even more and … commit to doing things that help our community thrive from the inside out. Exciting stuff!” (Schweser et al., 2016, p. 10).
Lanthier’s favorite part of the project was when Southwest RSDP Executive Director David Fluegel invited a reporter from the West Central Tribune to the demonstration event in Milan. Lanthier explained, “They wrote up a whole article on local grocery store owner Mr. Bergen Standahl and his Prairie Market in Milan. That article really increased the calls to his store from people as far as Willmar who wanted to know more about the specialty foods he carried. Seeing the indirect effects of the project on grocery stores was really exciting.”
Suite of resources
The work didn’t stop at the five demonstrations. To make the information widely available, the team published a Fresh Produce Toolkit full of helpful items and tips. This information is designed with rural grocers in mind, but Lanthier explained that the toolkit could be useful to corner stores, local farmers, and even food shelves as well. She has received feedback from each of these groups that the toolkit information will help them in different ways.
So if you were curious, fresh asparagus can be stored upright in chilled water. Unripe avocados can be damaged by chilling, causing them to appear gray. Watermelon should be taken off the shelf when pitting occurs. Not only can the Fresh Produce Toolkit answer questions on produce, but it may also be part of the answer to revitalizing rural grocery stores.
Draeger, K., Lanthier, K., Mohr, C., Tremper, N. (2016). Rural grocery store survey at-a-glance: Fresh produce and farm to rural grocery. University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships.
Schweser, G., Tong, C., Lanthier, K., Draeger, K. (2016). Stocking freshness and abundance. University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships.
Elizabeth Braatz is a student in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resources Sciences (CFANS) majoring in Environmental Sciences, Policy, and Management. She works with RSDP as a Student Writer/Communications Assistant.RSDP connects communities with the resources of the University of Minnesota to drive sustainability in Greater Minnesota, and is part of University of Minnesota Extension.