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Changing Consumer Preferences May Provide Opportunity for Young Farmers

A recent editorial in the New York Times was titled, “A Seismic Shift in How People Eat.” Written by two university professors, Pamela Koch and Hans Taparia, the opinion piece detailed how the biggest food companies like General Mills, Tyson, Kraft, and McDonalds are clearly behind the eight ball. 

Among the highlights:

  • Consumers are walking away from America’s most iconic food brands and turning to new products with easy-to-understand ingredient lists, much less sugar, and no artificial flavors.
  • Food companies are desperately struggling to keep up. General Mills added over 200 new products last year, from Cheerios Protein to Betty Crocker gluten-free cookie mix. But they need a fundamental shift in their approach, including a complete overhaul of their supply chains.
  • Today, say the article’s authors, consumers spend most of their time on the perimeter of grocery stores with the fresh products like raw produce and fresh prepared foods. Center-of-the-store packaged goods aisles are somewhat in jest called the morgue.

Koch, the executive director of the Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy in Nutrition at Columbia University, and Taparia, a business professor at New York University, say the shifts to fresh and simple foods put the future of “big food” at great risk. That includes their normal supply chains, as well, perhaps all the way back to farm level. 

Koch teaches a course called nutrition ecology, and she says, “We see a lot more questioning of food and what consumers want to buy for their families. One of the things we notice is that those businesses that are transparent in their products are the ones going up in sales.” 

While the eat-healthy trend is not brand new, the pace of change is accelerating, Koch says. “It’s like smartphones. The techies got them first, but pretty soon we all got on board. That’s happening with food trends,” she says. 

She thinks millennials, the trend-drivers, tend to be skeptics of things in general and food in particular. “They’ve been hearing about nutrition and health their whole lives, and now they’re in a position to make their own decisions,” says Koch. It spreads to their friends and family, too. 

“I think it’s a sea change that is happening right now to what and how we eat,” she says.

Koch’s husband comes from a Nebraska farm, and she thinks farmers should try something new by devoting some acres to a crop or farming approach that is coming into greater demand, like edible beans or direct sales. It might keep you in the game, she reasons. 

“Maybe this is an opportunity to get young people into farming by growing crops that use their labor to their advantage.”

This article is part of a series titled “Meet Your New Boss: The Millennials.” 

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