Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Have Food Shows Become Food Deserts?

For most of the past week, we were travelling and participating as a vendor at the largest natural foods show in the world. Yesterday, after returning to Vermont, I had to go to the grocery store to replenish our refrigerator and pantry. Honestly, I probably bought twice the amount of vegetables, fruit, and greens I usually do because I was starved for produce. You see, the largest natural foods show in the world has become, in my mind, a food desert—one huge, one million square foot convenience store. How could this be? The USDA defines food deserts as “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.”  These neighborhoods don’t have traditional supermarkets and grocery stores and are typically served by fast food establishments and convenience stores.  Why am I calling the show a “food desert” when in fact there were mountains of free food and samples?

There were over 2500 vendors, and if you take away those exhibiting health and beauty aids, supplements, pet foods, and packaging, over three-quarters of the vendors were promoting chips, desserts, cookies, crackers, snacks, and snack bars--789 of them, by my account. We were there exhibiting our new pita bread, as well as several flavors of our pizzas and baguettes. Attendees would stumble by our booth and say “OMG, real food!” while simultaneously reaching for a slice. And, we’re talking pizza here, not exactly a high nutrient meal. Over the last 8 years I have been attending regional and national natural foods shows, I have seen a trend towards more and more snacks, and most of them are highly-processed even though they might contain high anti-oxidant ingredients or the latest nutrient-dense foods like chia, coconut, hemp, quinoa, and even cricket flour.

To be fair, the organizers of the show report that 38% of products exhibited claimed to be organic, and 35% were gluten-free. But the organizers themselves also point to an increased trend towards snacks, or what they call “snackification,” as well as convenience items. The result is a lot of quick-fix, highly-processed health food.  I didn’t go to the show expecting aisles of produce or hand-crafted cheeses, but it felt like you had to walk miles of the exhibit floor to find real food.  I guess that is the state of the natural food world today, mostly because it is what consumers are looking for. Honestly, it is kind of disheartening.

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