Lori Taylor: Putting a Spotlight on the Produce Department
  • Season 3
  • Episode 5

Lori Taylor is the Founder & CEO of The Produce Moms, a lifestyle media brand and community of passionate fresh produce advocates with a mission to inspire everyone, especially children, to eat more fruits and vegetables. For ten years, Lori sold fresh produce to over 300 grocery stores throughout the United States. Today, Lori and her team are fully focused on educating consumers about fresh produce. In today’s episode, she and Jessica spotlight the produce department and talk about where these products we see every day may be coming from.


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Jessica Hughes
Viscul / Fork & Lens

Lori Taylor
CEO, The Produce Moms

Quote from Lori Taylor
“Community is where it’s at. And that’s exactly what we’re doing and that’s exactly what our goals are here. The Produce Moms is the leading consumer brand driving sales and consumption of fresh produce, but we aspire to create a community of moms and people who are as passionate about fresh produce as all of us who work in the industry are.”


Jessica Hughes: Welcome back. Today we have Lori Taylor on the podcast and I am super excited about this because Lori talks a lot about what I firmly believe in. And so personal opinions aside, let me give you a little insight into Lori. Lori Taylor is the founder and CEO of The Produce Moms, a media brand and community of passionate fresh produce advocates with a mission to inspire everyone, especially children, to eat more fruits and vegetables. [00:00:30] For 10 years, Lori worked in a supply chain and sold fresh produce for over 300 retail accounts. Today, Lori and her team are fully focused on educating consumers about fresh produce, introducing them to produce brands, engaging the produce industry with consumers and inspiring conversations and promoting public policy to protect and increase the availability of fresh produce at American schools. Lori’s work has been featured on oprah.com, Huffington Post, Real Simple Magazine, US Kids Magazines, as well as ABC, CBS Fox and NBC affiliates throughout the United [00:01:00] States.

Lori has received numerous recognitions for all of her work in innovation with The Produce Moms, and she resides in Indianapolis, Indiana with her husband, two sons and their great Dane. She serves as a member of the Indianapolis Public Schools Wellness Committee, community partner of the Indiana Department of Education, office of school and community nutrition. That is a mouthful. And is a lifestyle morning show contributor on the Wish TV’s Indie Style as the host of The Produce Moms podcast and is a member of the United [00:01:30] Fresh Produce Associations Produce Marketing & Merchandising Council. Lori is amazing and I can’t wait for you to listen to our conversation. She and I could have probably gone on for several more hours, but we try to keep it to at least bite sized snippets for you guys. So we hope to have her back in the future. We’d love to hear what your questions are so that we can ask those to her next time around. Here we [00:02:00] go.

Why don’t we start out with you giving us a little bit of background. Tell me about your work at Indianapolis Fruit Company and consumer marketing and how that kind of led [00:02:30] into this whole, The Produce Moms.

Lori Taylor: Yeah. So for 10 years, I sold fresh produce to grocery stores that our delivery corridor spanned as far North as Minnesota and as far South as Florida. So I was delivering produce to over 16 States or servicing clients that represented over 16 States and grocery stores. I had a 300 retailers that I was supporting as their account during my time [00:03:00] at the sales desk and Indianapolis Fruit Company as a wholesale distributor. So we’re right in the middle of the supply chain, meaning that our vendors are the farmers and our customers are the retailers. We also had a fresh cut processing facility in-house. So with that came a strong understanding of things like USDA inspections and all the regulatory side of our business, because we weren’t just moving the food, we also had a facility in house where we were cutting it. [00:03:30] And items that you and all of our listeners today probably can quickly identify with like the precut trays of pineapple chunks that you can buy in the produce department. Those were things that we were making, or like the veggie trays that are just grab and go in the produce department.

 So those are typically made, those are typically put together to mitigate food miles and to extend shelf life on that very important, that’s called the value added category in the produce department. [00:04:00] Those are typically done by distributors or fresh cut processors throughout the United States so that our consumers can get the freshest product possible. It’s not really sustainable for anyone if that pineapple tray is made in the tropics and then is brought into the United States.

Jessica Hughes: So how did that lead into The Produce Moms?

Lori Taylor: Okay. So when I was sitting at the sales [00:04:30] desk, I realized some days in our warehouse, we would have five different pallets from five different growers. And we were just selling that whole SKU of product line. It was just strawberries, but there were five different brands, five different farms, five different labels that were represented. And that spurred my interest in knowing more because here I am at the sales desk and I also was really privileged because I had some clients that I was servicing that pushed me to learn [00:05:00] more about the products that I was sending them when they were at the stage when they were placing their order.

 They didn’t want to be surprised with a label that they were unfamiliar with when our truck rolled up at their dock. And in that journey, what I learned was there are some amazing stories here in the produce industry. I also wholeheartedly agree that or believe that not all food is created equally. I mean, there is a real [00:05:30] need for a heightened level of consumer transparency and that connection directly to our food and to our farmers. We need to understand what’s happening on these farms, farming practices.

 And then also the sustainability side of it. People want to know those feel good metrics. Like what are you doing to work towards carbon neutrality? How are you treating your labor workforce? What are you doing for the communities where you’re growing this product? Those are all [00:06:00] things that data tells us. I mean, this is stuff that consumers care more and more about each and every day. And when I was at the sales desk immersed in this industry, selling it and not as a really, wholesale distribution is just a rapid fire stage of our supply chain because you sell it or smell it. You bring that … your warehouse fills up, you better sell it out in a matter of days. You cannot warehouse it because it’s highly, [00:06:30] highly perishable. And for some commodities, even just one additional day in the warehouse, one day of slow sales and you’ve lost multi millions of dollars because of the quality is gone.

 So when I was realizing, my time at the sales desk spanned from 2005 until, which I’m sure we will have the opportunity to talk about here shortly, my departure from the company in 2015. So during [00:07:00] that decade, a ton happen just in how consumers even get our information. Like 2005, blogs didn’t even exist then. I mean, social media did, but it was still at a very emerging stage. Like Instagram wasn’t around. And so it was around 2010 when I started to see this shift in my own personal life as to how I was receiving information. Facebook was rising above Myspace and [00:07:30] blogs were starting to emerge. And I started to really identify how I was getting information as a new mom, because I had a newborn and a two year old at the time.

 And so it was mind boggling to me how little I could find as a new mother on the internet that was all about fresh produce, because I was interested as a mom who was … I was starting to, I was breastfeeding my newborn and I had [00:08:00] a two year old that was transitioning to soft foods and eating, like I wanted to make sure he was eating the best food possible. So I had this peaked interest in nutrition, and then also my professional life, it would have been good for business to have a little bit more understanding on fresh produce as well. And what I found was really disheartening to be honest with you. There wasn’t a whole lot online and what was online felt like I was reading a Wikipedia page. It was very fact driven. 

 It was about like [00:08:30] scientific, like agricultural claims. And if you wanted to learn more about why is this good for me, it felt like I was just reading a medical journal or the spokesperson that it was coming from was a dietician or a doctor. And the whole premises was eat more fruits and vegetables because they are good for you. And frankly, we all know that when we sit down to eat something, we want to eat something because it tastes good. We want to eat something because it’s fun to eat. We want to eat something because of that cultural connection to what’s happening in our life. [00:09:00] And I felt like that whole premises was missing in our industry. And when you consider the consumption data and the fact that in all food and beverage produce is, I mean, we’re in dead last, as it relates to consumer consumption.

 We have the most nutrient dense, most delicious, most vibrant, most colorful, I could go on and on with every positive attribute, it’s affordable, it’s everywhere. There’s no doctor telling you not to eat it. There’s no culture telling you not to eat it, yet we [00:09:30] still have about 90% of Americans not eating the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables on a daily basis. That’s a critical threat to the business side of my life and the business side of why I’m passionate about this industry. And so as I started to really just almost evaluate the state of where we were at as an industry and my passions were obviously there. I mean, I tell everyone, “You don’t stay in produce unless the passion [00:10:00] comes into your soul.” Like farming is … It doesn’t matter what stage you’re at from that seed to smile journey. If you’re working in the fresh produce supply chain or frankly probably any agricultural supply chain, you’re there because you are extremely passionate about it. 

 And so I had 10 years, well, at the time it was probably around … well, it was around 2011 when my wheels really started spinning, like we got to do something and we are so uniquely positioned at wholesale distribution because we sold [00:10:30] the entire produce department. Another thing that I would realize when I started doing that research that I was telling you about in 2010, trying to find more really for the moms side of my life, more so than the professional side, what I was finding is that, hey, we’ve got like I can log into the … I can opt into the Sunkist messaging and learn all I want to know about oranges or the Chiquita and learn all I want to know about bananas or because I’m very knowledgeable in the industry, I knew that like, hey, if I wanted to learn more about romaine [00:11:00] lettuce, I could follow along with Tanimura & Antle or celery due to Farm Fresh Foods or artichokes, Ocean Mist Farms. 

 But my guess is anyone listening to our podcast today who’s not working in the fresh produce supply chain, those last three brands that I said, you don’t even know who they are. And that is the world’s largest romaine, world’s largest celery and world’s largest artichoke growers that I just said. And these are multi-generation, multi-decade owned family owned farms still today, or Tanimura & Antle’s [00:11:30] now actually employee owned. But I mean, these are amazing stories and amazing powerful brands that are the backbone of American agriculture, and no one knows who they are. And so that’s a barrier to our industry’s ability to connect with folks. And so I’m like, “Okay, well, let’s see what the retailers are doing because that was our customer at the time.” Well, if I hopped into my retailers messaging with a goal of trying to learn more about produce, I’ve got to sift through everything from the beer ad, to the Cheetos, to the frozen pizza, [00:12:00] to the yada yada everything.

 And most retail ads, they might have one or two produce items on the front page or a few items hidden in the back and I know enough about the food economy to understand why that happens. Produce, the margins are low for our growers and we just don’t have the marketing budgets that your manufactured products do. And a lot of what we see as consumers, as it relates to the marketing [00:12:30] that’s being pushed forward by our retailer of choice, a lot of that is all money driven. Like it’s pay to play. A lot of even what’s slotted on the shelf is pay to play. These are some of the secrets of food marketing that a lot of folks don’t understand, which is another reason why I am so very passionate about figuring out … I was like, “We got to do better. We have all these amazing brands. We supply the world with the most nutrient dense food. And these farmers deserve to have a heightened [00:13:00] brand awareness first of all.”

 I mean, I sometimes with my speaking engagements, I’ll kick it off by saying, “Tell me what’s your favorite brand of sneakers?” And I’m convinced I could go through a full assembly of people three times and everyone … you could list at least three brands of sneakers, just like that. But if I say, “Tell me your three favorite brands of apples, no one knows a single brand of apples.” I mean, they might say honey crisp. [00:13:30] And what I say to that is, “Hey, that’s like me saying, my favorite brand of shoes is sneakers.” Sneakers is not a brand. It’s a variety, it’s a commodity. And that’s where we’re at as an industry, we are a commoditized consumer product. 

 But I do believe that with the heightened consumer interest, and I thought this in 2011, when I bought the domain and I pitched it to my bosses after sitting on it for a few months. I pitched it to my bosses in 2012. [00:14:00] And I said to them when I pitched it, I said, “Look, I think this is a really big idea. And I explained everything that I just shared with you and our listeners today. We are at this … there’s this paradox almost within produce where folks don’t know … We knew there was a rising consumer interest in learning more about their food, but there’s so little information out there. And even the information that is out there can [00:14:30] be difficult to find in … I mean, now today, most of the brands do a better job of putting investments toward consumer facing marketing and digital channels and whatnot. 

 But in 2011, 2012 when we got The Produce Moms rolling, that was not the case. That was the height of the craze and we were probably among the first consumer-facing blogs that was fully focused on fresh produce in the world, [00:15:00] not just in America, in the world and that we built it together. I sold it to my former employer. This was, I’ll never forget that day when I pitched it. Like I said just a few minutes ago, I sat on the idea. I didn’t know as a 30 year old professional, I share this because any woman, this is a personal experience that I hope inspires female leadership here because I sat on a great idea for about six months because I didn’t know how [00:15:30] to present an idea to my bosses. 

 And I thought, and it wasn’t really so much that I was afraid that they were going to say no, I just had no idea how he even did it. I had no idea how I would take an idea to my bosses that says, hey, I know I’m not related to you. I know this is a family owned business, but I think that I should start offering a consumer facing blog and we can title it, the produce mom because at the time it was singular and base it loosely off my life as a new mom and a produce industry professional. Like how the heck do you do that? [00:16:00] And here’s my advice, you just do it because you never know what kind of support you’re going to get. And I found myself in a Friday afternoon meeting in the corner office and the reason I unleashed my idea was because I thought I was getting fired and they asked me, it was one of those, it reminded me of the movie office space.

 I walk into the corner office and there’s the president of the company, the executive vice president of the company and then my boss. So like my boss, my boss’s boss, my [00:16:30] boss’s boss’s boss, and then also the company consultant. And I’m like, “Oh wow.” And the consultant’s fielding the questions. And he says to me, “Lori, do you have any ideas for our 2012 marketing program at Indianapolis Fruit?” And what I had was a full business plan. I was so prepared for that question. I just needed someone to open the door or I needed to have that inner confidence and gumption to present it without the nudge. But I’m so thankful that I got that nudge and that opportunity, because the idea obviously has opened up a [00:17:00] tremendous amount of doors and made the world a better place. 

 And here I am telling my story to you and your listeners today, but that was a big deal in 2012, for my bosses to get behind that. And when I pitched the idea and when I said like, “This is how …” And it was very … I didn’t have a lot of consumer research to back. It was very grassroots and anecdotal. I was like, “Look, blogging is big. It’s what me and my friends are subscribing to. We can be a solution to everyone that we’re doing business with that wants to connect with the end consumer. [00:17:30] And we can talk about the whole produce department, unlike what all of our vendors have to do.” It’s really a tough sell to get people to opt into a blog that’s just about bananas. That’s tough, but-

Jessica Hughes: Only so much you can talk about there.

Lori Taylor: Right. But I wholeheartedly believed that we could get people to opt into a blog that was all about fruits and vegetables and we’re absolutely on our way. Like I was right. And we monetized it in those early stages [00:18:00] by either the vendors paying us in exchange for exposure and custom content marketing that we would push forward to support their brand, or they would pay us in the form of ad dollars or rebates on the products we were buying from them. So it was working out really well. I mean, and it grew, and I had my employer’s full support and I think I even surprised them at how well this idea was able to take off and self-sustain [00:18:30] essentially. I mean, it was paying. After a year of it being operated, They broke it off into its own separate LLC and positioned it as a sister company to Indianapolis Fruit Company. And we were paying … I was able to meet all the benchmarks financially so that we could pay the bills.

 We were never operating in the red or pulling money from Indie Fruit, but really we weren’t making a whole lot of money. We were basically covering the bills which in the world of startups, it’s like you’re winning if [00:19:00] you’re paying the bills. But in the world of a corporate fourth generation family owned business that’s doing multi millions of dollars a year in sales, that’s not really what they were looking for with a new venture. So we had three years of incredible growth and support together. And then my former employer essentially said, “We’re done with this.” And that was a horrible day for me. I mean, I really like that day when they took me to that offsite [00:19:30] meeting and that was in April of 2015. And it was another one of those lovely Friday afternoon meetings and it was offsite and I was told to bring my computer. So I’m like, “Oh wow, this is it. I’m really getting fired today.” And I wasn’t getting fired, but things definitely were …

 I was at a crossroads in my life and I’ll never forget the words that came out of the, he was at the time the CFO and now today he’s the president of the company. He’s a dear friend too. He’s been, and I’ll get to that in a minute about how to [00:20:00] handle something like this. The mindset is everything and the world is a small place, so don’t burn bridges people. But he said, we had small talk, I ordered a salad and I’m like, I just knew something was up. So let’s just cut to the chase her. And finally the CFO being the numbers guy, he was the first one to speak. And he said, “Lori, we think you’re doing amazing things with The Produce Moms at the time.” I mean, this is an Indianapolis based company and [00:20:30] I had worked with the Colts to do an in school assembly and show. And it was like, no one had ever seen anything like it because the Colts weren’t even being … like we were working with them and not paying royalties for those NFL athletes. 

 They were doing it through their community good will. And he was like, “It’s amazing what you’re doing.” And he goes, “But,” and I knew that but was coming. He said, “Indianapolis Fruit Company is done with The Produce Moms or The Produce Mom.” It was singular. And [00:21:00] I just started crying and I didn’t even want to cry. I never let those guys see me cry, but I had built this thing like any entrepreneur would and if you hear that your entrepreneurial idea is being shut down and from your point of view, things are going well, like you were paying the bills and-

Jessica Hughes: It’s rough.

Lori Taylor: And I couldn’t help it. But I started, so I was crying and the first words out of my mouth were, “Well, where does that put me? That’s [00:21:30] my only job.” And they said, “Well, we’re not firing you. You have two options and the attorney’s prepared this letter,” and they slid it across the table, the dining table and that’s when I realized, oh my gosh, this is a real crossroads. This is a letter from the attorney who I like is my friend, you know the general counsel at the company. And there’s two options here. One option is I can buy it and the other option is I can go back to the sales desk and have my former job, former [00:22:00] salary, all that. And I just slid the letter right back to him. And I was like, “Well, I’m buying it.” And my exact line was I would be a caged animal if I went back to the cubicle and had to shut this down. And they were like, “Okay.”

 And then I saw the price. I actually looked at the option I chose and I read through it and I realized, holy crap, that’s more than the home my family and I live in. And so I said, “Well, I’m going to have to talk to my [00:22:30] husband.” And then I didn’t need the stupid salad, I got up and left. And so I couldn’t believe what I was facing. And when I had my family’s support and I realized like, you know what, we can do this. I can cash out my retirement. I can borrow money and we can buy this thing and I can be a business owner, and I can keep this thing going. I know that this thing can go because I knew what we had already done [00:23:00] was remarkable and novel and unique for industry, and we had support. Some of the things I negotiated in the process, I said, “Fine.” I go, “But you’re not telling our Produce Moms sponsors or I’m not telling the Produce Moms sponsors, you’re going to tell them.” 

 And so the executive vice president of the company, he’s so great and he’s been a great supporter for all this time. He was like, “No problem.” So he put together the conference call and we did a private call first [00:23:30] with one of our highest and longest standing sponsors. And the first words out of that man’s mouth, it was the president of Sage Fruit Company. And he said, “I think that’s great news.” He said, “I think it’s going to be the …” He’s like, “Sage fruit will still support the Produce Mom. I think it’s going to be a better platform being owned by Lori.” And that changed my whole trajectory. I had this incredible confidence that was instilled just by that man’s confidence [00:24:00] in my capabilities. And hearing him say those powerful words to my former employer was just like, I mean, the tears came down again. I couldn’t stop them. That was another one of those moments where I’m like, “I can’t help it, I’m crying.”

 And then we had the joint conference call with everyone, and that was, I mean, it was really amazing, the journey and the grace. I had one of our clients reached out to me privately after that conference call and he said, “Look, I want to remind you of [00:24:30] something.” And no one at the time knew the price. None of these people realized. I think a lot of people thought that I was getting it for like half of my salary, like $25,000 or something. They had no idea that it was a six figure acquisition price, and it was more than my home and it was like, no one had any idea. And it took a very long time to be even honest about that. But I had the call from [00:25:00] a gentleman and he was from Washington state, very involved in the Apple industry and he’s been a seasoned professional in our industry for many years.

 And he said to me, he goes, “Look, this is a really small industry. Your attitude and how you handle this will dictate your whole future.” He said, “That might feel like a big industry that’s global and powerful because it’s food and it’s farming.” He was like, “But trust me, how you handle this will dictate your whole future. So take on the right mindset.” And that was the best advice I could get because I had so [00:25:30] many opinions coming my way, as you can imagine, even from my own family. People saying like, “Why are you doing this? Just start over. You already know how to do it. You don’t need to buy it. You certainly don’t need to spend that kind of money. That’s BS. Why are they charging you that? They’ve never even paid you that in 10 years of working there.” 

 And I had to silence all of that and you know what I focused on? I focused on the fact that my idea was selling for that kind of money. And when I shifted my mindset that way, I had a unique sense of achievement in what I was going through. [00:26:00] And I wasn’t … And now when I look back on it, I have a huge amount of gratitude too now that I understand business better and realize like they could’ve just shut it down. They didn’t have to even offer me the opportunity to buy it or they could have sold it to someone else and they sold it to me. And so there’s this remarkable story of how mindset and gratitude and just really sticking to your intuition and to your values can yield the best days [00:26:30] of your life and that’s what I feel has happened in my journey.

 And so I acquired the business. We closed on it August 31st, 2015. So I just recently celebrated five years of owning it. And in 2017 was when I rebranded to The Produce Moms. And the reason I did that was because I never intended for this business to be synonymous with me. That was never my goal. I knew that a good blog and a good brand [00:27:00] ambassador or spokesperson, you have to have a face, you have to have something that people can connect to. And so as you can imagine, and after I acquired the business from Indie Fruit, I was almost like so hyper focused on myself, like this is me now. It’s not Indie Fruit. And I almost went too far with equating The Produce Mom equals Lori Taylor.

 And then I took a step back. I realized what was happening in the world around me, like Mark Zuckerberg rebrands Facebook to be more of [00:27:30] a community centric brand and platform. And I’m like, “Community is where it’s at.” And that’s exactly what we’re doing and that’s exactly what our goals are here. The Produce Moms is the leading consumer brand driving sales and consumption of fresh produce, but we aspire to create a community of moms and people who are as passionate about fresh produce as all of us who work in the industry are. And we leverage those stories and those passions from the supply chain to help better educate and [00:28:00] passion is contagious. And with education comes a level of understanding. And through that understanding, we find our passions. And so that’s been the whole premise of this brand. 

 And in 2017 when I did that rebrand, there were some people who criticized it and I still wholeheartedly, when I look back on the whole journey, that’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made was to take the brand from The Produce Mom to The Produce Moms. And what we are about is [00:28:30] we are about our community. We are about making the world a better place, and we’re about helping families and moms through that whole journey of understanding more about fresh produce and also just simplifying the process. I’m not some dietician or doctor or medical professional that’s gonna ramble off all of these things that could actually make you feel worse about yourself, like make you feel inadequate. What we’re going to focus on is making you feel really happy in that cultural connection to your food and helping you understand and celebrate the [00:29:00] fact that all produce is good for you. And any time you’re choosing a fruit or a vegetable, you’re making an excellent choice. 

Jessica Hughes: Yes, it’s so true. And there are so many little nuggets of insights and lessons through your experience that you just went through. And I hope those listening glean some understanding about that. I know for me owning multiple businesses, I know that understanding of you [00:29:30] can’t just sit on something, if it feels real to you, and you have that gut feeling, you have to tune out everything and just go for it and present it as clearly as you can to the who you need buy in from. And that buy in doesn’t necessarily mean that it needs to come from your cousin and the person at the corner market, it needs to come from the people that it affects financially, but it needs to come from the people that also we’re going to have your back through the entire thing. And [00:30:00] so that makes a huge difference.

I do want to dig in to farmers because there’s a lot of little things that you mentioned in the midst of this. And obviously there are some things that are broken within the growing system and the supply chain and communications and marketing and those sorts of things. And just to touch on some of them that you’ve mentioned thus far, you talked about transparency and sustainability and the margins in order to be able to market that messaging forward [00:30:30] to the consumer base and how a lot of what’s out there lacks a lot of authenticity to it. Instead, it feels very rigid and medical journal like. What are other ways that you feel like the system has been broken based on your experience and how do you think that retailers can actually help promote change and how they’re buying from growers and communicating those messages forward?

Lori Taylor: Okay, so you just opened up one of my, like this is Pandora’s box. So we’re going there. [00:31:00] I actually just wrote an article for Blue Book Services. That’s one of our trade-marketing journals on this topic. And I mentioned the term paradox before and I think it certainly applies here. There is a real paradox in the produce department. We know through any data source, I don’t care if it’s Nielsen, IRI, FMI, like produce marketing association, it doesn’t matter. Any data, any person collecting consumer insights in food and beverage, they’re going to have some very [00:31:30] strong figures that demonstrate consumers are interested and actually not just interested. They are downright demanding more transparency in their food. And to that I say, amen, it’s time. And truthfully, I know all these farmers. I mean, I have been to … Most produce commodities in the produce department, I personally know like the family and the marketing team and the sales team and the executive team.

 I mean, I know these people. I’ve been to these farms. I’ve been to farms all [00:32:00] over North, central and South America. And I can tell you right now that they are investing in all of that transparency and they’re investing in strategies to increase consumer confidence like our blockchain advancements and our task force that address things like food safety. I still wholeheartedly, I always say we have the most food safe system right here in the United States. [00:32:30] It is so hyper transparent and hyper traced where we know about outbreaks instantly. And we know about little [inaudible 00:32:40] and then what do our farmers do? They do voluntary recalls. They don’t have … The vast majority of them are not mandated.

 They err on the side of caution and human safety because it’s the right thing to do. It’s like the most noble group of people I’ve ever met are America’s fruit and vegetable farmers. And I’ve met farmers from other sectors [00:33:00] of ag too. And I can say that really about agriculture as a whole. I mean, I’ve worked with FFA and had exposure to other sectors, but obviously most of my work is within specialty crop agriculture, fruits, vegetables, tree nuts and flowers. And this is some of the most wholesome salt of the earth type of people you’re going to find. And they’re feeding their families too, and they continue year after year, crisis after crisis to plant that food in the ground, knowing that [00:33:30] about 90% of us aren’t going to eat what we should. 

 There’s no one, I don’t know anyone else who’s gonna do what they do and invest the dollars that they … It’s such an uphill battle for them every day. Now I think that retailers need to get … they need to decide what they’re doing here, because what retailers have done to farmers, I mean, I would go to say it’s one of the sneakiest things in my opinion that’s happening in food retail right now and that is private label in the [00:34:00] produce department. Private labels and manufactured products, I’m not so worried about that because if someone’s buying a cracker or a cookie and really what’s happening with the center store items, they’re not usually replacing the name brand, they are offering it in an adjacent or in addition to the main brand. Those marketing dollars from the big CPG companies, those marketing dollars are very powerful. 

 And [00:34:30] if you take those products off the shelf, those marketing dollars go away. I’m talking about the Pepsi Co’s and FritoLay and exactly all the big companies in the world that control center store food. Those items are not getting booted, but it is making a more competitive landscape for smaller emerging brands to come in and get shelf space if you are a cracker, for instance. It’s extremely difficult [00:35:00] to introduce a new cracker item to the grocery store today because most of that shelf space is sold already. It’s already … Yeah. So some of our product innovation in center store, but I don’t really want to go, I don’t want to get in the weeds on that. I want to stay focused on the produce department. So in the produce department, what you see when you walk into the produce department, we can use the grape category as an example.

 Typically, when you look at your grape set, you have red grapes, you have green [00:35:30] grapes and you might have a black grape depending on what grocery you’re shopping at. And if you’re shopping at a super sophisticated grocery, you might also have like a red globe grape, which is a seeded variety and maybe like a really fun varietal such as a cotton candy grape, or like a Gumdrop grape, et cetera. So within that set, if the grocer decides that they want their classic varieties, the red, the yellow, the red, the green, and the [00:36:00] black to be their store brand, they don’t necessarily keep the farmer brand on shelf with it. What they do is they replace the farmer brand. And so then what does that create? It creates a total paradox of what they say they’re all about.

 So if we are about data driven decisions and we are about driving, reaching consumers, meeting consumer demands, what consumers data and consumer demands are [00:36:30] telling us, we want to know where our food is from. We want that transparent supply chain. We want to know what point of sale that we’re putting our dollars for good. And when you slap the private label brand on there and you wipe the grower brand, where does that leave the consumer? Where does that leave the farmer? How do we know who even grew this? Because when you look at the package, the front of it says the store brand, [00:37:00] and then when you flip it over, what it typically discloses, and of course it will always disclose the country where it’s grown. That is a federal regulation and food. It’s called country of origin labeling law. And every single produce department item will have the country where it was sourced. And that’s either on the little tiny PLU sticker, if you’re buying bulk fruit or it’s on the package if you’re buying a packaged product. Okay.

So you will know what country it’s in, but does that really tell us enough? Is that really all you want to know? As a consumer, in this hyper-connected [00:37:30] society, I mean, it’s not 2010 anymore where that’s checking the box, consumer transparency, we know what country it’s from, that doesn’t work anymore. It’s 2020, people want to know what farm it’s from. And beyond that, we want to know all of those other metrics that play into sustainability. You want to be able to have an understanding of what type of farming practices exist. All of that information is lost in the private label process. The other thing, and what I mentioned earlier, the farming economics and the food [00:38:00] industry economics, it really tightens the margin for the growers and the growers are the nucleus of the produce industry. By that I mean, who’s funding all of the innovation and things like, how are we going to mitigate the amount of chemical sprays that we use in our land?

 No farmer wants to spray the crops. That’s like the biggest myth that’s out there because when a farmer sprays the crop, I mean the food, the land is their … that’s [00:38:30] how they make their money. The land is their factory floor. They have to take care of mother earth and also, it’s a low margin industry with a ton of risk. One frost and you’re screwed. And so they don’t want to add unnecessary cost to good either. But I think one thing that the pandemic and the rise in at-home gardening reminded folks of is farming ain’t easy. And we have to do things like fertilize our crops and spray our crops [00:39:00] with pesticides or fungicides. Like it is just unfortunately part of it.

 And there is a real need for consumer education on crop protection. And consumers need to understand that, yes, it exists on all products like organic, conventional, locally grown. Really the only type of product that you can buy that might not be … that you can be very confident has not been exposed to any sort of crop protection would be if you bought your product from an indoor vertical farm or a greenhouse [00:39:30] and that information, like consumers just don’t know all of that. But guess what, our farmers are disclosing it on their brand websites and through their brand marketing. They are investing their dollars into this and our retailers are wiping it away from consumer understanding. 

 And really it’s keeping us in this, like we’re stuck in the doldrums of a commoditized department because the retailer is not helping us at point of sale with bringing the brand to [00:40:00] life. And when you walk into a produce department, you want to know who the farmers are. You should feel as connected to your farmer at a grocery store, as you do at a farmer’s market. And grocery stores are where the majority of our … that’s where the majority of the food is sold. And as someone who spent time in the supply chain, I can also tell you like the regulations in terms of food safety, the grocery stores have the strictest regulations for [00:40:30] food safety, and then also too, their KPIs for things like sustainable growing practices that they demand of their growers, you are getting food safe food, they have all of these things in place. 

 And for most growers that still exist today, the only reason they still exist today is because they’ve been farming in a sustainable fashion. They would already be out of business if they weren’t. And so I hate the current trends that I’m seeing in my local produce department. [00:41:00] It’s been this kind of slow burn to … I’ve noticed it in different sets. I feel like most recently my tomato set was overhauled and I hate it because I love the innovation that’s happened in the tomato category. We can get the most delicious tomatoes. I live in the Midwest and I can get the most delicious tomatoes even in January when there’s like two feet of snow on the ground. I can get what tastes like a summertime backyard tomato, because of the innovations [00:41:30] that have happened both at the farm level and within indoor agriculture and greenhouse growing, as well as in our logistics. 

 But what’s happened, and I know the differences between these different farms. I know, like I have brand preference from apples to zucchini. I’ve got a favorite brand in the produce department. Most shoppers don’t have that understanding the way I do. I’m committed to trying to raise that. I’m committed to closing [00:42:00] that gap in the circle of understanding through The Produce Moms, but it’s a long journey. I mean, there’s probably, most folks probably know about five brands in the produce department and you know the average grocery store has over 200 SKUs in the produce department. And so that could be up to 200 brands and no one knows, just the understanding is not there. And so I think it’s devastating to farmers what’s happening [00:42:30] with private retail at the grocery, at the produce department level. 

 I hate it as a shopper and I hate it as someone who’s passionate about making sure our farmers are … because sustainability, you know what it starts with? It starts with profit. A lot of people don’t like to think of that. They like to think that feel good industries like farming are like profit’s not part of it. Of course profit’s part of it.

Jessica Hughes: It’s a business.

Lori Taylor: And yes, of course. And with that profit, they are able to invest in strategies [00:43:00] like improving all those goodwill things that are important in sustainability, improving their environmental outputs, improving the farm workers conditions and labor conditions, even improving packaging, the environmental stewardship. All of that leadership is coming from the farmer. They’re the stakeholder that is investing in that. So they spend all their money on that innovation and [00:43:30] support, we’re really improving the industry and improving our world and then they can’t put their brand name on the product. And I get it. As someone who sat at the sales desk, I might’ve said it earlier, it’s a sell it or smell it industry. You got 50,000 acres of crop in the ground. What are you going to do? You’re going to do whatever you got to do to sell that crop.

Jessica Hughes: Right. It’s so true.

Lori Taylor: And if that means maintaining the commoditized culture that we have [00:44:00] in produce and just slapping the consumer brand on it. And folks have no idea if that tomato was grown by, or if that potato was grown by you or your direct competitor, so be it. And so what it does is all of that … It creates a farming economy or a bidding system to get your products on retail shelves. It’s squeezing the profit margins for the [00:44:30] growers even more. And it’s really created just a … It’s like anyone who wants to pack their product in our brand can potentially get a PO. It doesn’t matter what your farming practices, like it doesn’t matter if you have all these superiorities to your direct competitor, we’re not going to pay a premium for that anymore because we’re putting everything into our … and I hate it.

 I hate it as someone who has studied this industry and who has spent so much time and continuing education on studying the farms, [00:45:00] really through this half of the globe. And I hope to get over to like the Asia Pacific rim and South Africa and Australia soon because those are all really important parts of our global food economy. But right now, all of my perspective is coming from really the areas that feed Americans the most, and that’s USA, Canada, Mexico, central America and South America. And [00:45:30] I am just saddened by the trends that I’m seeing, because I know that we all know, retailers know this too, consumers don’t need to see their store brand on front. And then when they flip it over, the backside of the packaging says distributed by and it lists the grocery store you’re standing in when you buy it. It’s like, no joke. Okay. Obviously you’re distributing it.

 I don’t need to know that. I need to know where this food is from. And that has now been hidden. And it’s a trend that [00:46:00] I saw. It’s transformed the tomato set at my local grocer, and I hate it. I hate it so much. And I just saw when I was grocery shopping this past weekend, I just saw that now it’s happening in the grape category, which is why I use that as an example and I hate it. I think it’s food bullying in a really unique way. I mean, it’s a level of food bullying that we’re not talking enough about, and it can be fixed. [00:46:30] If the retailers, they’ve invested in their brands. I get it fine. Do a co-branded venture. Let your shoppers know where the product lines are … who the farmer is. So for the 20-

Jessica Hughes: Right. Grown by, distributed by.

Lori Taylor: Exactly. For the 29% of shoppers who are on record today, this is I’m citing FMI data right now, Food Marketing Institute data, 29% of shoppers are saying sustainability is influencing my purchasing decision. Sustainability practices are influencing my [00:47:00] purchasing decision. You know, that’s up 9% from the last time we got this data in 2018. That’s one of the categories with the most rapid growth in consumer interest. And I expect, every marketer in our industry expects to see that just continue to rise and rise and rise as a KPI for consumers when we are making our decisions at grocery retail. So I think it’s a selfish choice. I think it is not a data driven choice. And then they present the data, [00:47:30] they as the retailers. Retailers present the data of strong sales with private category or private brand, private label sales surge. Okay. You’re neglecting to mention the fact that the sales are surging because they are replacing the farmers’ brand. You are not offering it in conjunction. It’s not like Oreos where you got Oreos and then your chocolate wafers, like your store brand chocolate. That is not [00:48:00] what you’re seeing in produce.

Jessica Hughes: No. And there’s only so much square footage in order to allow things on the shelf or in the produce section, in displays. And if one thing’s coming in, something else has to go. And as you’re talking about this, I’m thinking about how so many grocers and retailers focus in on local campaigns, especially during like the summer, early autumn months about what local farms produce are we bringing into the store, but it should be so much more than that. It should be a year round effort that talks [00:48:30] about where our food is coming from, especially even more so as from a consumer level in the winter time, because I know it’s not local. I know those strawberries were not growing in my backyard, they’re coming from South America.

Lori Taylor: They weren’t even grown in America.

Jessica Hughes: Right. They’re coming from South America or elsewhere in the world and that needs to be transparent and communicated. And so I think there’s a lot of great value.

Lori Taylor: It’s so critical. And when you think about our winter months, like what we’re getting into right now, this is one of the most transformative time of year. I’m [00:49:00] not sure exactly when this broadcast is going to be airing, but you and I are speaking today on the heels of what is the fall reset in the produce department. And that is really like when you walk into the produce department, you’re going to notice, wow, it went from summer to fall and apples are everywhere. You know what I mean? It’s like, it’s one of the most transformative times and merchandising period of any consumer products. So as we get into fall and winter, you’re absolutely right.

 And the other thing, and this kind of ties into [00:49:30] the social responsibility arm of agriculture, a lot of the products that we bring into our home, a lot of the fruits and vegetables that rank in our top 100 commodities and grow sales in the United States at certain times of the year, they are being sourced from some of the poorest parts of the world. What are we doing to ensure that our food dollars are improving these poverty stricken areas, where the food is far farmed? And that-

Jessica Hughes: Fair [00:50:00] trade, labor stories, the whole bit.

Lori Taylor: 100%. And it’s lost when the consumer slaps their label on it or when the retailer slaps their label on it and replaces or wipes the farmer’s brand, because the farmer is the one telling that story and the farmer is the one investing in that advancement. And so it is, to me, it’s one of the … it’s such a threat to building the consumer trust and to meeting the consumers where they’re at. We have to meet consumers where they’re at. We have 90% of [00:50:30] consumers not eating our products. We have to meet them where they’re at to help them understand like the produce department’s where it’s at people. Come and enjoy and meet all your demands right here in produce.

 And the retailers have a very powerful role and they need to take care of the farmers and create an environment that fosters the prosperity of their farmers and the vendors of the produce department and also present … No one cares about your pretty label. [00:51:00] Much more like consumers want to know more about where this food is from. I realize it’s from marketing and food. There is a whole complex food economy that definitely impacts what we see on retail shelves. And I understand why private labels exist. But like I said previously, I think that they belong in the center store, not in the fresh produce department. This is a living, breathing, this is [00:51:30] the most raw nutrient dense food you could eat. Let’s make sure people understand where it’s from. 

Jessica Hughes: Yes, for sure. So before we wrap up, how can listeners find you?

Lori Taylor: Pretty easy. Theproducemoms.com. We’re on every social media platform and even the contact form on our website comes straight to my inbox. So if you would like to get in touch with me personally, click on contact on theproducemoms.com and that email form will come straight to my inbox. I would be more than happy to connect with any of you. And [00:52:00] I also monitor a lot of our social media inboxes and whatnot too, or you can find me on LinkedIn, Lori Taylor. I’m happy to connect with anyone or answer any questions that you might have about the discussions that I so passionately shared today.

Jessica Hughes: Well, thank you. I appreciate it.

Lori Taylor: Yeah. Thank you.