Jet.com redefining grocery shopping

via Jet.com redefining grocery shopping

You’ve probably noticed the postcards popping up in your mailbox for a new service called Jet.com, promising that you can get groceries delivered to your home. I got mine last week (complete with a promise of $10 savings), and it prompted me to do a bit of research.

It turns out this company, which didn’t even exist a couple of years ago, has now become a major disruptive force in the grocery business. And it’s not just groceries; while the company focuses on groceries in its marketing, you can buy just about anything on the site.

 

After the site’s creation in 2015, its meteoric rise caught the attention of Wal-Mart, which wanted to position itself at the front of the online-retailing race. In September, the superstore behemoth acquired Jet.com for about $3 billion.

Of course, the grocery business is no stranger to innovation, but this could be one of the most profound. While it’s taken awhile for the sedate industry to embrace e-commerce, it appears that long-awaited day has arrived.

The roots of the grocery business reach back into antiquity; people have always needed a market to buy and sell food and other essentials. Innovations through the years have brought a lot of changes, with none (at least until recently) more important than the invention of the first true self-service grocery stores. An entrepreneur named Clarence Saunders is credited with helping bring about this revolution with the opening in 1916 of the first Piggly Wiggly store in Memphis. This store and others like it changed the way we think about shopping. (If you’re ever in Memphis, stop by the awesome Pink Palace Museum to see a mockup of Saunders’ revolutionary concept.)

In the century since Saunders opened his doors to customers, technological innovations have slowly changed the shopping experience. But the recent developments with Jet.com and other online retailers have promised that the shopping experience will soon be transformed. Now, you can peruse a website, place your order and have your groceries delivered — all without ever having to leave home.

When I got my Jet.com postcard (which promised $10 off my first purchase and free shipping if I bought more than $35 worth of groceries), I decided to give it a try. The site is pretty easy to navigate, and does appear secure, although you must provide your contact info and payment information. I put a few items in my “virtual” basket, and noticed that as I did so, the prices for some of the goods already in my basket were dropping. In other words, the more items you buy, the bigger the discounts. Jet.com says this is because they can group certain items in a box, therefore saving the cost of shipping.

Compiling my order on a Wednesday, I gave the packers a challenge; among my choices were a cumbersome 15-pound bag of dog food, a 150-ounce container of clothes detergent, three boxes of cereal and a few small items. The prices were competitive with what you’d pay in a local store, with no taxes or shipping charged, and my $10 coupon code applied. After completing the order, I clicked “submit” and then waited. Delivery was promised within two days. Sure enough, on Friday, a box was waiting by the front door, delivered by FedEx.

Inside, the items were arranged neatly and efficiently. My only issue was that one of the cereal boxes had gotten a little crushed, but the contents appeared none the worse for wear. All in all, it was a pretty nice shopping trip — no checkout lines, no germy cart handles, no wrestling of grocery bags to and from the car. And, of course, Jet.com will remember your list and preferences for next time (and will probably start bombarding you with ads and promotions.)

It’s also important to note you can save a few pennies on your order by giving up your right to “free returns” of certain items; you may want to consider carefully whether you’d want the ability to return items for refund or replacement.

While Jet.com’s services are an end-run around the built-in challenges faced by bricks-and-mortar stores, some retailers have recently been upping the ante on their own convenience services, such as online ordering and pick-up at local stores. For example, Kroger’s ClickList allows you to order online and pick up your groceries at curbside. ClickList costs $4.95 (more for an “expedited” order), while Wal-Mart’s is free. And both companies promise delivery services soon in local communities.

One thing is prominently missing from Jet.com and similar services, at least for now: the ability to buy fresh or perishable groceries. Jet.com says fresh products are available only in selected cities, but promises to bring fruits, vegetables, dairy and frozen foods to us in due time. In the meantime, you will have to get your milk and bananas through a local bricks-and-mortar store, but at least you’ll be able to pick them up without having to leave your car.

For now, no one knows whether — or how — these innovations will change the grocery store experience in our local communities. And long-term relationships built between local, knowledgeable grocers and their customers (which put sales tax dollars and payrolls to work in local communities) will be hard for online retailers to overcome. It won’t be apparent for a while whether we’re seeing the cutting edge of a complete transformation of how we shop for basic necessities, or just a test of what proves an unsustainable model. Still, it’s an interesting time to be a shopper.

Take a look at FDA’s new food nutrition labels

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via Moak: Take a look at FDA’s new food nutrition labels, clarionledger.com

Whoever comes up with the information on nutrition labeling must get frustrated at the lack of respect their work gets from the average person. A lot of work goes into making this little box of data, which can be found on just about every edible product. And that box contains a lot of information that could have some serious health implications.

In reality, most people just don’t bother to read nutrition labels unless they’re consciously trying to do a better job of controlling weight, fighting allergies, dealing with health problems such as diabetes, or just trying to put better stuff into their bodies. But it might be a good idea to start, if you care about your health. And here in the Magnolia State, where we fight a constant battle with obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other problems directly related to the food we eat, understanding what’s in our food can be a good first step to eliminating those scourges.

Standard nutrition labeling began about 26 years ago, with the passage of the Nutrition Labeling and Education act of 1990. The law required all packaged foods to bear a label that describes their contents in standardized terms mandated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In addition, the law tightened restrictions on things like healthy-food claims and determined what things like “low fat” and “light” meant on food packaging. In 1992, the now-familiar “Nutrition Facts” label began appearing on all types of packaged foods.

In the past few years, the old label has been quietly undergoing a radical transformation. And just a couple of weeks ago, the FDA announced a series of sweeping new revisions. Some of the changes are cosmetic, although others reflect changed understanding of foods learned through two decades of dietary science. Some of the requirements reflect changes in how foods are packaged for use, and others just acknowledge the changes in the American diet over the past two decades.

“For more than 20 years, Americans have relied on the Nutrition Facts label as a leading source of information regarding calories, fat and other nutrients to help them understand more about the foods they eat in a day,” noted FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf. “The updated label makes improvements to this valuable resource so consumers can make more informed food choices — one of the most important steps a person can take to reduce the risk of heart disease and obesity.”

One big change: Food serving sizes have changed since the law required that serving sizes be standardized, by measurement size and weight. In the 23 years since, we’ve been eating bigger and bigger servings of food, so the new “serving sizes” will be changing, too. For example, the FDA notes the size of a single serving of ice cream has risen from ½ cup to ⅔ cup. (In some cases, it never really made much sense. As Consumerist’s Kate Cox noted recently, “When’s the last time you had a measured half-cup of breakfast cereal in a measured half-cup of milk?”)

Another key change reflects the realities of how we consume packaged food. While that big soft drink bottle might actually be considered to provide two servings, many people consume the whole thing instead of saving half or splitting it with someone else or saving it for later.

Here are a few more changes:

  • In the updated daily values section, which tells you what percentage of your “recommended daily values” of various components, there are some major changes you might not notice. For example, “Calories from fat” is being removed, because (according to the FDA), “research shows the type of fat is more important than the amount.” In other words, it’s important to know how much trans fat and saturated fats are in the item. (In case you were wondering, the FDA is pushing ahead with including trans fats, even though they’re being phased out.)
  • Vitamins are a big change that you might not notice. According to the FDA, deficiencies in vitamins A and C — which were common in 1990 when the law was passed — are apparently rare now. Therefore, these vitamins won’t be listed.
  • And you may notice that, in some cases, there will now be two columns instead of one. For example, a bag of potato chips will have two columns, one to indicate how much (or more accurately, how little) nutritional value you’ll get if you ate a “serving”; the other to detail the collateral damage to your insides if you decided to binge on the whole bag.

Food manufacturers will have two years to implement the new guidelines while smaller companies (those selling less than $10 million in sales per year) will have until July 2019. For more detail on the changes, visit www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm385663.htm.

‘Slack filling’ may mean you pay more to get less

via Moak: ‘Slack filling’ may mean you pay more to get less, clarionledger.com, 12/15/2015

PDF: Slack Filling

Upon opening a box of cereal the other day, I noticed that the cereal only filled about two-thirds of the box. The rest of the box was filled by air trapped inside the liner bag. That didn’t surprise me; it’s a rare occasion when you find a package is filled to the brim. It’s actually somewhat defensible — because we know that some products actually do “settle” inside a package. Just about all potato chip bags contain the disclaimer: “Package is sold by weight, not by volume.”

But what is catching a lot of American consumers off-guard is that while packages may look the same from the outside, in many cases there is less product in the container than before. Adding to consumer anger is you and I are likely to be paying the same or even more for the same size — but lighter — box of goods.

This practice is known as “slack-filling,” and it’s caught a lot of attention in recent years. A recent class-action lawsuit by three plaintiffs against consumer-products behemoth Procter & Gamble (which makes Tide laundry detergent) accused the company of routinely employing “deceptive packaging containing excessive empty space to mislead customers into believing that they were receiving more laundry detergent than they actually were.” Additionally, notes class-action website Topclassactions.com, the Tide lawsuit alleges “the larger packaging used in Tide products gives P&G more shelf space for their products, giving their product an advantage in grocery stores.”

“In addition to the allegations of oversized packaging,” noted Topclassactions.com, “the plaintiffs also took issue with other aspects of the products’ packaging design. The plaintiffs allege “the bottom of the integrated pour spout ends well below the rim required for the screw in cap.” They illustrated their point with photographs, noting, “There is simply no reason, even with the spigot apparatus, why the liquid detergent could not be filled to the top of the bottle.”

Also discussed was the transparent strip alongside the handle, which indicates how much product is left. By strategically placing the strip lower down the bottle, consumers can’t see that the product doesn’t even come close to filling the bottle. “This is a conscious effort intended to mislead the consumer,” Topclassactions.com noted, “as the Defendants knowingly and deliberately chose to add a transparent strip that would not allow consumers to see the significant amount of empty space toward the top of the container.”

If you don’t think it affects a company’s bottom line to reduce the amount of laundry detergent by a few ounces, think again. When dealing with the huge volumes of consumer-products, even a tiny change can mean profit or loss. In this intensely competitive environment, many companies so fear raising prices that they have sought to save money however they can. But some advocates claim they’ve crossed the line when they engage in slack-filling practices.

P&G settled an $850,000 lawsuit earlier this year in California in which consumers accused the company of using false bottoms in their jars of Olay moisturizer to make it appear there was more product in the jar than there actually was. P&G is not alone when it comes to this issue, however; previously, advocates have accused numerous companies of similar tactics, including The Clorox Co., Unilever and McCormick & Co. Inc.

Drugstore chain CVS paid a $225,000 fine last year for alleged violations of California slack-fill laws.

In a June story headlined “How Do Companies Quietly Raise Prices? They Do This,” the Wall Street Journal noted, for example, that 4-ounce boxes of McCormick’s Black Pepper were quietly replaced with 3-ounce boxes, which looked nearly identical. (That’s 25 percent less product for about the same price.)

Usually, when a company is accused of such nefarious practices, they will argue (often convincingly) that slack fill is necessary to protect the products inside; to deter theft (that’s why CDs are sold with those infuriating plastic frames); or to allow for proper use of the product. For example, microwave popcorn packages must have extra space to accommodate the expansion of the popcorn once it’s heated. These explanations make it difficult for regulators to go after companies for using the “slack-fill” tactic. In fact, the federal regulations concerning slack-filling give six exceptions which would exclude a company from being called deceptive; some states are even more lenient.

But while this battle rages on among industries, regulators and armies of lawyers, consumers may feel they’ve been left in the cold when trying to make the wisest use of their dollars. So, here are a few ways you can make sure you’re not being led down the primrose path:

  1. Compare unit prices. Unit pricing (when done honestly) allows you to compare products by weight, by number or by some characteristic shared among brands. For example, toilet paper might have a unit price per sheet; bags of dog food have a unit price per pound. That way, you’re comparing apples to apples. Most retailers have a unit price on the shelf, allowing you to make a fair comparison.
  2. Pay attention to weights and volumes. We’re all creatures of habit, and some of us are intensely brand-loyal when it comes to certain things. We’re more likely to just grab that familiar jar of peanut butter and less likely to notice the weight on the jar has decreased.
  3. Use store brands. Of course, many of us wouldn’t dream of using a store-brand peanut butter or soft drinks. But often, they are virtually indistinguishable from the branded product. And, without the expense required to maintain a brand in the marketplace, it’s a better deal for you. Of course (as we saw with the CVS lawsuit), it’s not a total solution; still, you’re likely to be paying less in the first place.

Paper coupons just won’t die

Originally published on clarionledger.com, 11/10/15.

Going to the grocery store these days is a lot different experience than it was even just 10 years ago. Look around the aisles, and you’ll find shoppers hunched over their smartphones, hunting bargains. Alongside those phones are often stacks of paper “cents-off” coupons.

You’d think the paper coupon would by now be relegated to the dustbin of history, joining 8-track tapes, party lines and S & H Green Stamps. In an age in which many retailers have converted their coupon programs to digital rewards programs, it would seem inevitable that the old “clip-and-save” habits of Americans would have disappeared. But a new report from Creditcards.com seems to refute that notion; Americans are still in love with paper coupons.

Even tech-dependent Millennials still like to get out their scissors and find bargains twice as much as they seek out any other savings method, noted the study, which asked Americans who use coupons to reveal their coupon habits. “Dead trees aren’t dead when it comes to coupons,” said Matt Schulz, CreditCards.com’s senior industry analyst. “Plenty of Americans are still opening their snail mail and reading the Sunday paper. I expect paper coupons to lose some market share, though, as consumers and brands get even more comfortable using them electronically.”

According to the study, 85 out of every 100 consumers seek out some coupon savings, whether print or electronic. While electronic programs are gaining ground, however, they are still just a small fraction of the total. A healthy 63 percent of those surveyed said they most frequently use coupons from newspapers, mailings and other paper products. A distant second in the survey was entering a discount code online, followed by presenting a digital version of a coupon on the phone.

Some coupon aficionados have helped keep the paper coupon alive through what’s known as extreme couponing. This trend (exemplified by its own TLC show from 2010 to 2012) has helped some people save big at the checkout line, but is said to be time- and labor-intensive. Some have criticized the show and the concept itself because it is said to encourage hoarding unneeded items and potential fraud and misuse. It has been the target of groups such as the Coupon Information Corporation, a “not-for-profit association of consumer product manufacturers dedicated to fighting coupon misredemption and fraud,” which charged the show with encouraging potentially-illegal acts.

Still, you can save money with coupons without going to extremes. In his article How to coupon at $50 an hour on his The Simple Dollar website, Trent Hamm notes that getting the biggest bang for the buck can start with a simple, systematic approach, with careful planning and discipline. The target is not necessarily to have 10 giant-sized bottles of laundry detergent lying around, but rather to save money on things you already buy.

Here are a few tips:

Just because you have a coupon doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to use it. If a coupon is for something you would be buying already, then use it. But if you buy something just because you have a coupon (unless the end price is zero), you are likely to spend more than you would have otherwise. That defeats the whole purpose, doesn’t it?

Take advantage of sales to “stack” savings. For example, if an item is on sale, and you have a coupon for it, you can often save more that way.

Some stores still allow you to “stack” coupons. This practice is becoming rarer, but some stores still allow you to use multiple coupons for the same purchase. Check with your store to see if this is permitted.

Sign up for your favorite stores’ coupon promotions. If you don’t mind getting extra mail or email, you can sign up for coupons from your favorite stores, delivered to your mailbox or inbox. Some store loyalty programs (such as Kroger’s) will send you coupons based on your buying history.

Read the fine print. All retailers have some policies about coupon use, and the fine print on the coupon gives you the issuer’s limitations. It’s important to know those going in, so you know what you can expect.

Remember that retailers and customers need each other. Businesses need customers and customers need businesses; it’s a symbiotic relationship. When shoppers come in the door, and they can find real savings, it benefits customer and retailer alike. Successful retailers know that saving money is important to their customers, and most will work with you to maximize savings opportunities. Your business is important to them, and if you check, you will probably find that they will do everything they can to help you. That way, everybody wins.

Is it mayonnaise or not?

via Moak: Is it mayonnaise or not?, clarionledger.com, 8/28/2015.

If you saw a product named “Just Mayo,” with the label covering a jar filled with a white, creamy substance, you would probably assume that the jar contains mayonnaise. But that assumption — according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, anyway — would be incorrect.

In a letter to Hampton Creek (which makes “Just Mayo” and related products), the FDA’s William Correll Jr. recently took the company to task for calling the product “mayonnaise” when, in fact, it didn’t meet the FDA definition of what constitutes that product. “Your Just Mayo and Just Mayo Sriracha products,” Correll admonished, “are misbranded … in that they purport to be the standardized food mayonnaise due to the misleading name and imagery used on the label, but do not qualify as the standardized food mayonnaise as described under 21 CFR 169.140.”

Sharp-eyed news junkies may remember that Hampton Creek and its products were the subject of a threatened — then dropped — lawsuit late in 2014 by consumer products behemoth Unilever over the very same issue. During the fray, Unilever itself had to clarify that some of its own Hellmann’s products were actually “mayonnaise dressing,” not mayonnaise.

According to Merriam-Webster, mayonnaise is “a thick, white sauce used especially in salads and on sandwiches and made chiefly of eggs, vegetable oil, and vinegar or lemon juice,” or “a food made by mixing something (such as chopped eggs) with mayonnaise.”

In particular, Correll noted, since there are no eggs in the product, that can’t possibly be mayonnaise in that jar (as anyone knows who has produced homemade mayo). In addition to the naming, Correll called out the company for making what he called unjustifiable claims as to the heart health of the product, and to the nutrients claimed on the label.

Now, while no doubt many of you are rolling your eyes at government overreach and/or interfering with private businesses, the FDA takes its job seriously, and in fact, we all have benefited from high standards. Whether there has actually been — or could be — any harm is quite another question altogether, and it should be noted that Hampton Creek’s niche market might be fully aware there are really no eggs in Just Mayo — maybe it’s why they buy it in the first place.

Many consumers are no doubt blissfully unaware that there are definitions to just about every type of product available, from what constitutes the proper weight and configuration of a “paper clip” to the types of chemicals and miscellaneous junk that can go into packaged foods. What you can say about a product on the label or in marketing is tightly regulated, especially if it deals with health claims. For example, claims such as “gluten-free” or “may contain peanuts” may not make much difference to the average person, but can be deadly serious if you happen to have celiac disease or a peanut allergy. Product labels have a big responsibility — to tell the truth about what’s inside.

The bottom line: We should all get better at reading labels to see what’s actually in our food. The American food labeling system — as cumbersome and onerous as it may be — is actually among the best in the world. If you’re interested in finding out more about how to assess those food label claims, Stephanie Morish at Denver Sports Recovery back in May wrote a great piece about some key things to consider when looking at what’s in your food. It’s worth a visit.

One clear winner in all this hoopla over what does or does not constitute mayonnaise: Hampton Creek. Although they aren’t likely to break the stranglehold held by established mayonnaise brands — it’s one of those things on which most people just won’t compromise — the company seems to be basking in the attention as it portrays itself as David fighting the establishment Goliath. It will be interesting to watch.

Report: Family farms still the backbone of American agriculture

It’s no secret that family-owned farms have been suffering in recent decades. Beset with a variety of challenges including rising costs of production, volatile markets and economic pressure, it’s been tough. Many family farms find themselves constantly teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, or of losing their land altogether.

But despite the perceptions, don’t count out the family-owned farm; a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) finds that family farming still is still (by far) the backbone of the nation’s agriculture. And Mississippi’s 38,000 farms, covering 11 million acres, are playing a significant role.

The 2012 Census of Agriculture Farm Typology report is a special data series that primarily focuses on the “family farm.” By definition, a family farm is any farm where the majority of the business is owned by the operator and individuals related to the operator, including through blood, marriage, or adoption.

“Family farms significantly impact Mississippi agriculture, the state’s largest industry,” noted  Mississippi’s Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Cindy Hyde-Smith. “Nearly 97 percent of the farms in the state are family-owned. These families are providing safe, affordable food and fiber to consumers in the U.S. and across the globe.”

Here are a few highlights, provided by Hyde-Smith’s office and Mississippi State University:

Most family farms are small: More than nine out of 10 of the state’s family-owned farms are considered small family farms (gross cash income of less than $350,000), and they produce more than a third of farm sales.

New farms are starting: Eighteen percent of principal operators on family farms started within the last 10 years.

Farming makes a huge financial impact: In 2014, Mississippi farmers yielded $7.9 billion in production, and nearly a third of the state’s workforce was employed in jobs directly or indirectly related to agriculture.  These 2014 figures are from the Department of Agriculture and Commerce’s website at mdac.ms.gov:

Mississippi’s five largest crops, by dollar value, include:

  • Poultry/eggs, with approximately 738 million broilers and 1.3 billion eggs produced on 1,430 farms, valued at $3.13 billion.
  • Forestry, with about 125,000 landowners producing timber on 19.7 million acres, valued at $1.28 billion;
  • Soybeans, with 3,274 farms producing nearly 114 million bushels valued at $1.17 billion;
  • Cotton, with 824 farms producing about a million bales valued at $404 million;
  • And cattle, with about 16,000 farms raising more than 930,000 head valued at $397 billion.

“Whether small or large – on the East Coast, West Coast, or the Midwest – family farms produce food and fiber for people all across the U.S. and the world,” noted NASS Statistics Division Director Hubert Hamer. “It’s due in part to information such as this from the Census of Agriculture that we can help show the uniqueness and importance of U.S. agriculture to rural communities, families, and the world.”

To access all the data products from the Census typology report, including Highlights, infographics and maps, visitwww.agcensus.usda.gov.

“Comfort” food may not be nutritious, but it sure is popular

Let’s face it: we love our comfort food here in the South. Perhaps it’s the way we were raised, with many of us just a generation removed from the farm (or not removed at all). In the past, as people worked hard, they consumed a lot of fatty, salty food. Unfortunately, with many of us living a sedentary lifestyle these days, we get too many calories and too little exercise.

You may recall that, a few weeks ago, I wrote about an initiative to highlight locally-grown produce. There are indeed more healthy choices than ever before. But, when that tired and hungry office worker is confronted with the seductive power of a box of cookies at the grocery store, it takes a massive effort of will to opt for the celery stick. As for myself, I have a very demanding sweet tooth, and although getting older makes it more imperative to eat better; it’s a challenge not to err on the side of comfort.

Marketers know what buttons to push when you’re perusing the supermarket aisles. They’ve had decades to learn, have spent untold millions trying to get inside your head, and do a pretty good job of making you – and your kids — want the stuff they’re selling.

Now, there’s proof that comfort foods are on the rise, and those millions are paying off. A company called Instant.ly has developed a research tool that samples consumers quickly after new products hit the shelf, to determine what they call the “Intent to Buy”.

The Instant.ly Shelf Score Index just released their August figures, and – surprise – it was dominated by fatty, salty comfort foods such as Eggo’s new blueberry cobbler waffles.

The rest of the list is interesting, though, and points to some emerging trends, such as the “kit” trend, in which you have all you need to make a meal in one box. But there is some reason to believe people are at least trying to eat healthier; Among the list were a couple of yogurt choices, along with a veggie potato chip brand.

And the deck is just stacked against us. This week, a British restaurant called the Bear Grills Café introduced what’s being called a “monster” breakfast: the 8,000-calorie “Hibernator Challenge”.This humongous meal comes complete with eight sausages, eight slices of bacon, four hash browns, four fried eggs, a four-egg cheese omelette, four waffles, four black puddings, beans, tomatoes, mushroom, fries, four pieces of plain toast and four pieces of fried bread (plus butter). All that is topped with a 32-ounce strawberry milkshake topped off with a giant dollop of whipped cream.

To try it, you’ll need to ante up £19.00 (about $31.00) for a chance to win about $162. One rule: you have to sign a waiver that you won’t sue the restaurant when you go into cardiac arrest. Of course, we have our share of “mega-meals” here in America, too: just about every town has at least one restaurant with its own version of the “we-dare-you-to-eat-everything” challenge. (Remember the “Old 96er” in The Great Outdoors?)

Eating right has always been a challenge for most people, and it’s just not getting any easier.

Technology helps link you to local produce

via Technology helps link you to local produce on clarionledger.com, 8/5/2014

One of the great things about living in a mostly-rural state like Mississippi is that it’s pretty easy to find healthy foods, grown by local farmers. Many farmers just set up a shop from the back of their truck on a roadside or parking lot, farm stands are popping up everywhere, and many cities are hosting their own farmers markets.

Of course, farmers markets are nothing new; the practice of bringing locally-produced goods to sell in one place is just about as old as civilization itself. What’s changed is the fact that — as with most other businesses — technology brings powerful new tools to help people find just what they’re seeking. With the emphasis on healthier eating, the need to support local farmers and rising food costs, this is an ideal time for technology to come to the aid of consumers looking for local options.

Recently, as part of National Farmer’s Market Week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a series of measures to make it easier to find locally-grown foods and highlight the role of farmer’s markets. The USDA announced over the weekend that the agency’s National Farmers Market Directory now lists 8,268 markets, an increase of 76 percent since 2008.

And here in Mississippi, consumers can easily link up with Mississippi’s 86 farmers markets, thanks to a new mobile app from the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce. The app (built by Mississippi company bfac.com) can be downloaded at http://www.mdac.state.ms.us/OnlineServices/ma_farmersmarket.asp. It shows the farmers markets on a map, and taps into your device’s navigation features. The app also allows you to see events at the big Mississippi Farmers Market, link to the “What’s Fresh” market bulletin and more.

“Good health starts with having access to healthy food,” noted Mississippi Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner Cindy Hyde-Smith. “Mississippi is fortunate to have 86 farmers markets, and these farmers markets provide consumers with increased access to fresh, nutritious fruits and vegetables. Today’s technology allows consumers to easily make a connection with Mississippi- grown products and the farmers who grow and sell them. All of this information is available right at the consumers’ fingertips.”

According to USDA’s 2014 National Farmers Market Directory, the states with the most farmers markets reported are California (764 markets), New York (638 markets) and Michigan (339 markets). All geographic regions saw increases in their market listings, with the most growth here in the South.”

The numbers reflect the continued importance of farmers markets to American agriculture,” noted Anne Alonzo, administrator of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). “Since its inception, the directory has proven to be a valuable tool for accessing up-to-date information about local farmers markets. Farmers markets play an extremely important role for both farmers and consumers. They bring urban and rural communities together while creating economic growth and increasing access to fresh, healthy foods.”

The directory provides information about U.S. farmer’s market locations, directions, operating times, product offerings, and much more.

The data is collected via voluntary self-reporting by operating farmer’s market managers and is searchable by zip code, product mix, and other criteria. I decided to check out the USDA’s search feature, which allows you to search from a radius around a particular zip code.

Entering 39205, specifying a search area of 200 miles and selecting Mississippi only, I found 80 markets, ranging (in distance) from the Mississippi Farmer’s Market in Jackson to the Bear Creek Farmers Market in Belmont. In some cases, a website link was available, but still needs some work, as an extra apostrophe requires a couple of extra clicks to access the site.

Widening the search to include non-Mississippi markets brings up 202 results, from Mississippi and all the surrounding states. Search services abound. One service, Agrilicious (agrilicious.org), returned 39 results for a similar search, and the popular Eat Well Guide delivered results for 80 farmers markets, plus a lot of other options, such as “U Pick farms”, nonprofit organizations and restaurants.

In addition to the directory, the USDA is trying to increase visibility of Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) efforts, which allow you to pay upfront for locally-grown produce. The money is used to buy seed, fertilizer and other necessities. An example is Steede Farms in Lucedale, which started a CSA operation in 2010.

There are many more options, including local stores, so a quick Google search or a visit around town is a good way to find what you’re looking for fast. With so many options expanding, this should be the golden age of locally-produced food. Technology provides enticing new ways to solve the age-old problem of linking the buyer with the seller, so let’s eat!

Unit pricing coming to online marketplace

In this blog, I’ve often written about the value of using unit pricing to make sure you’re getting the best deal. Many stores have been putting unit prices on their shelves for years, helping consumers make good decisions about prices.

Now, six major players in the online retail industry have agreed to publish unit pricing online, after signing a deal brokered by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

Notably, web-commerce behemoth Amazon.com didn’t join the deal, although they said they already have unit pricing on some items. Walmart and Costco have agreed to add unit pricing online by the end of 2014, with Walgreens, CVS, drugstore.com and FreshDirect adding it by March.

If you’re not familiar with unit pricing, it can help you decide on a product’s real price, regardless of flashy sales or packaging. Unit pricing uses some standard unit of measure (such as the price of a sheet of toilet paper, or a per-ounce price of a can of soup) so you can make “apples-to-apples” comparisons.

For example, if you’re trying to decide between two brands of chicken-noodle soup in differently-sized cans, looking at the unit price can help you decide which is actually a better value. Of course, unit pricing doesn’t address differences in quality, and must be applied consistently to be useful.

Placing unit pricing online is a win for consumers. It will help you and me by giving us the tools to make better decisions in an increasingly-bewildering online marketplace. It’s just one small thing, but could make a big difference when most of us consumers are woefully outgunned in the battle for our hearts, minds … and dollars.

Food companies making good on healthier-foods pledge

Remember Saturday morning cartoons? In our house when I was growing up, I would wake excitedly on Saturday mornings and plop myself in front of the TV before 7 a.m., waiting for the deluge of animated programming. There was a steady stream of cartoons and kids’ shows until late in the morning. While I was more interested in the adventures of Scooby Doo or Bugs Bunny than the annoying commercials that we had to endure, there’s little doubt that a lot of those commercial messages sank in. After all, the messages were designed by Madison Avenue to enrapture little minds and make kids really want the G.I. Joe with Kung-Fu grip, or to make us beg our parents to buy Lucky Charms. And they worked like a charm: sales of sugary cereals and heavily-advertised toys boomed in the 70′s.

In recent years, thkids-watching-tv-blog-sizeere have been a lot more attention paid to studying how advertising affects kids, and finding ways to rein in companies ads aimed at kids. After years of prodding from consumer groups and more-potent prodding from the Federal Government, it appears some headway is being made. At the beginning of the year, makers of 171 food products began making good on a commitment to advertise only “healthy” foods to children under 12, and to adhere to common nutritional standards. A key industry group is the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), an advertising self-regulation program administered by the Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB).

“The children’s food advertising landscape has changed greatly since CFBAI was launched in 2007,” said Elaine D. Kolish, CFBAI director and vice president of CBBB, in a release posted on Friday. “Some participants stopped engaging in child-directed advertising and the others have used meaningful company-specific nutrition criteria that have resulted in hundreds of recipe improvements and the development of new, healthier foods. The new uniform criteria have resulted in additional improvements in foods. While not every recipe for every food advertised to children in 2013 was able to be changed to meet the new criteria, those foods will not be advertised to children until they do.”

The advertising industry trade publication Adweek announced Friday that the list includes 18 companies including Campbell Soup Co., The Dannon Co., General Mills, Kellogg, Pepsi and Kraft. The companies have agreed to use new and more stringent techniques to ensure that there are ways to compare products and to ensure nutritional content and in some cases, have already reduced sugar and fat in products such as Yoplait’s Go-Gurt (a favorite at the Moak household) and Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes. Five companies continued their pledge not to advertise to children under 12 including The Coca-Cola Co., Ferrero USA, The Hershey Co., Hillshire Brands Co. and Mars, Inc., noted Adweek.

Some food companies had actually made progress on the new initiative before the Dec. 31 deadline, the CFBAI release notes, including:

  • A 25% reduction in sugar in Dannon’s Danimals Smoothie, a yogurt drink.
  • Reductions of 8% in sodium in five ConAgra Foods Chef Boyardee canned pastas.
  • Reductions of 28 and 52% in the sugar content in two ConAgra Foods Kid Cuisine frozen meals, and the addition of a new meal with 40% less sugar than a prior comparable meal.
  • Increases in the whole grain content of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish Grahams sold by the Campbell Soup Company and graham crackers sold by Mondelēz so that they now include 8 grams of whole grains per serving.

The whole list may be seen here.

Ultimately, putting healthier foods on the shelf will help curb childhood obesity and unhealthy eating. However, it’s just one piece of the puzzle. We, as parents, must pick up our part of the mantle as well. All the healthy food in the world won’t help if we can’t show our kids the way to get up and moving. After all, back in the “dark ages” (meaning before the Internet), once Saturday morning cartoons were done  our parents made us turn off the TV and head outside to play. It worked then; why not now?

(Originally published by the Clarion-Ledger on 1/17/2014.)