The Packaged Produce Predicament

Organic specialty lettuces

There is no right answer to this question: Is the trend toward more packaged produce a good or bad thing?

Way back in the last century, I spent a winter in New York City working as an intern at a display design firm. I was still in college, so I didn’t have a lot of experience yet as a supermarket shopper. New York was where I first encountered packaged produce. Back then, during winter on the East Coast, lettuce, tomatoes and such endured long, arduous journeys from Florida (or wherever) to reach the local grocery store on the upper West Side of Manhattan. The iceberg lettuce was wrapped tightly in plastic. Tomatoes and broccoli were also encased in an armor of refined petroleum products. Even though this was before the current obsession with eating fresh, there was no way I was going to eat those sad-looking vegetables. Better to wait till I got home to California to make a salad.

Fast-forward to the 2010s. Most supermarkets and smaller grocery stores boast lush, inviting produce departments all year long. Whatever is not in season in North America can be imported from other sources, usually Central and South America. At the same time, there is more packaged produce found in stores—even items that are locally grown. At a Pavilions market in Woodland Hills, California I spotted a bag of green beans on which was printed, “Orange County Produce.” Orange County is 45 miles away. Practically the only way for those beans to be more local would be if they were grown in back of the store.

What does this mean? A lot of the trend toward packaged produce even local in high season is in response to the increased demand for healthful ‘convenience’ foods like washed, bagged lettuce, pre-cut fruits and vegetables, ready-to-grill kabobs in sealed trays. But it goes beyond convenience. Now that consumers expect strawberries all year round, they need protective packaging more than ever to arrive on the shelf intact from whatever far-flung point of origin. Those delicate baby lettuces need containers (or bags) engineered to protect integrity and shelf life. In response, packaging companies came up with containers that ‘breathe’, allowing gases (oxygen and ethylene) and water vapor to escape, yet keep the delicate greens inside from drying out. Then there is the issue of food safety. Do you really want to eat berries or tomatoes that have been manhandled on the store shelf? Some of today’s clamshell containers have the added feature of being tamper-resistant so that consumers are assured that the produce within is safe and undamaged.

Cropped bok choyTJ asparagus

Stroll through the produce aisles and you’ll notice that produce packaging does more than protect from physical damage and prolong freshness. The package becomes a merchandising tool, providing not only nutritional information but recipe ideas and serving suggestions. Just what do you do with that baby bok choy you saw at Trader Joe’s? What is special about this bagged asparagus?– it’s washed and trimmed, ready to roast or barbeque. Whole leaves of kale may be healthy, but their preparation intimidating. A bag of washed, chopped kale with recipes for salads and sauté right on the package can inspire someone to try preparing this nutritious vegetable. That 1 lb. bag of golden, cubed butternut squash is just inviting consumers to bake it or turn it into a delicious soup. If you’ve even noticed whole butternut squash in the produce department, there’s a good chance you may have dismissed it as too difficult to handle.

TJ bn squash

The environmentally conscious among you may say, “Packaging for fruits and vegetables adds to waste and landfills. It uses up resources, increases our carbon footprint, winds up in that giant, Texas-sized ocean trash vortex in the Pacific.” All true. However, packaged produce makes it easier to eat a more healthy diet any time of year. It helps fruits and vegetables stay fresh longer. It educates consumers and encourages them to try new things, creating demand for variety, more produce and healthy options.

As I said at the top, there is no correct answer. But the question is worth pondering.

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