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They’re Eating Their Vegetables

Thursday, January 1, 1998

Mothers everywhere have long struggled to get kids to eat their vegetables. In 1992, this became the health objective of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) as well.
NCI’s Produce for Better Health program (5 A Day), a joint effort with the
Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH), is designed to get every American, adult or child, to consume at least five fruits of vegetables daily for the new millennium.
5 A Day is the first national program to focus on the positive role of these foods in reducing the risk of cancer and other chronic diseases. At the time of its inception, the program faced a daunting reality: A staggering 77% of Americans were not eating the minimum recommended amount, according to NCI’s baseline study. But choices are fostering increased consumption.
Many Americans may be unconsciously getting close to meeting the 5 A Day challenge by snacking on raw vegetables instead of chips, adding fruit to the breakfast meal, heading for the salad bar for lunch or dinner and opting for juice instead of coffee, tea, or soda. As aging baby boomers with buying power seek healthy dietary choices, distributors and retailers should explore the market for gourmet vegetables.

Fresh Options

In major U.S. cities, consumers are flocking to farmers’ markets selling just-picked produce. Major supermarket chains around the country are revamping and expanding their produce departments to tantalize customers, and some even include the word “fresh” in the store name. Sales of natural foods and organically grown produce have increased steadily in both specialty and conventional food stores. As public demand for what’s fresh - often associated with healthfulness - flourishes, consumers have come to expect both the conventional and the exotic side by side in produce departments.
Among the many suppliers of fresh produce is Sid Wainer & Son. With its registered slogan of “handpicked from the world’s finest farms,” the New Bedford, Mass., company has carved out a niche over three generations as a distributor, importer and retailer of fresh produce and other specialty foods. According to Henry B. Wainer, president, CEO and son of the founder, the firm was instrumental in developing the demand toward organic herbs and vegetables in the Northeast.
“In the last 1960’s, when we entered the specialty produce market, West Coast chefs, accustomed to specialty and organic produce, came east and started to demand the same here,” he explains.
Today Wainer buys some 600 fresh varieties of produce directly from growers in California, South and Central America, Israel, Australia, and New Zealand, and ships to a staggering array of hotels and restaurants both nationwide and overseas packaged under the Jansal Valley First Pick label. Its produce line includes such vegetables as baby lettuces, radicchio, several varieties of tomatoes, gold and red beets, baby leeks, turnips, Portobello and other wild mushrooms, yellow finn and Yukon gold potatoes and edible flowers. More usual items include Chinese long beans, lemongrass, cactus leaves, jicama, tomatillos, several varieties of chili peppers squash blossoms, Jerusalem artichokes and Japanese eggplant.
While much of Wainer’s produce comes from other regions and countries, the company is actively involved in supporting superior agricultural products from local artisanal farmers with the objective of ensuring that these products available to the best restaurants, hotels and gourmet retail outlets. “Our farmer-distributor relationships are important without them, we have no business. We have a lot of respect for farmers, and we never plan for more produce than we can use,” Wainer says.
Wainer is the only produce and specialty foods supplier of its kind to be HACCP certifies, indicating a commitment to bringing the freshest, safest and most wholesome products from around the globe. He recently received the honor of a doctorate in Business Administration for his efforts in food and culinary arts by the renowned Johnson & Wales culinary school.
Credited with introducing the shitake mushroom to North America in the early 1970s, Gourmet mushrooms in Sebastapol, Cal., grows 30 varieties of mushrooms. “We established the marketplace with shiitake, but it is no longer considered exotic because it is not so widely available,” says founder and president Malcolm Clark. “All our mushrooms see well. Our three best sellers are Cinnamon Cap, Trumpet Royale, and Clamshell, which are trademarked by us as we developed the cultivation methods that allowed us to introduce them to the public.”
With both domestic and overseas customers, the company has about a dozen species reserved for culinary use. Half the company’s overall supply is sold to highend restaurants and specialized gourmet food stores. The remainder goes for nutraecuticals used for therapeutic purposes. The company’s hand-packed Gourmet Mushroom Basket includes year-round and seasonal mushrooms such as morel, chanterelle, porcini, hen-of-the-woods and black trumpet.
While exotic mushrooms generally cost more than more common varieties, Clark expects prices to dip as a result of the company’s expansion into a new facility in Sonoma Country. The ability to grow mushrooms on a larger scale should decrease costs as the firm focuses on entering in this effort in packaging: the mushrooms now are sold loose by the pound in specialty store. “Stock rotation will be essential. We’ll need to educate store managers. You can't just put mushrooms in Styofoam trays,” says Clark. “ We are testing various possibilities, and pulp trays are an option. In addition as well as give back moisture.”
Clark has also been consulting overseas for years providing technical advice for firms seeking to cultivate exotic mushrooms. According to Clark the whole is coming to fruition - with the possibility of joint ventures in Ireland, Holland, Belgium, Germany, and Indonesia.
The most important part is getting reliable spore, says Clark. He compares the lack of quality spore to a farmer who has the best soil in the world, the best weather and the best soil in the world, but somebody ships him bad seed and he just cant grow his corn. “The same is true in the mushroom industry and unfortunately spore is a major problem - especially with the exotic strains. But we’ve got a real history with that - so we know which ones work” he says. Clark believes many of the exotics will be more widespread thanks to know-how technology. “The end result will please consumers - they will get the mushrooms at better prices and fresher.”