Ben Moreno remembers the old days before trucks took produce to the grocer’s back door. "Farmers would bring their crops to the Wholesale Terminal," says Moreno, 71. "They would even come by horse and buggy to sell."
Moreno’s memories of Phoenix’s Wholesale Terminal, the central location for produce distribution in the ’30s and early ’40s, include working alongside his father in the field and at market. The two would make their way to the terminal, site of today’s Bank One Ballpark, at 4 a.m. and ready the produce display for the 7 a.m. customers. "I remember being 10 or 12 and going to school with pockets full of money," he says.
Today, he continues selling produce under the name of Moreno Farms at Mesa Drive and First Avenue in Mesa. But he no longer grows the greens nor has wads of it in his pockets. The produce business has changed. Costs are up. There is more competition for consumer food dollars. And there are more outlets for produce.
Henry’s Marketplace, based in Boulder, Colo., Sprouts Farmer’s Market, based in Scottsdale, and Sunflower Markets, based in Longmont, Colo., are three recent additions to the Valley’s highly competitive supermarket scene. But these stores have a twist — they put produce first. That’s quite an interesting concept considering per capita consumption of fruits and vegetables isn’t going up. Population density, though, is.
According to Sharon Sass, registered dietician and community team leader for the 5 a Day for Better Health program, only 22.9 percent of the state’s residents ate five servings of fruit and vegetables per day in 2003. This compares to 24.3 percent in 1996. Sass is hopeful, though, that these new produce-driven markets will improve those statistics. Five a Day for Better Health is a national program sponsored by the National Cancer Institute and the Produce for Better Health Foundation to get Americans to eat five or more servings of fruit and vegetables a day.
"I think people are interested in health," Sass says. "And I think these markets will increase awareness. We know salad bars in schools increase the fruit and vegetables of our children by a serving a day." Perhaps having more markets emphasizing produce will have the same effect for adults.
For that to happen, she says, quality must be there. There must be follow-through on the promise of freshness in farmers-market stores. It just doesn’t fly to say "eat it, it’s good for you."
"I’m very excited about this," Sass says of the new market concept. "It’s a time for a lot of opportunity."
The markets think so, too.
Bob Millsap, director of operations and purchasing for Sunflower Markets, says population density, proximity to the agricultural production and the active lifestyle led by many Valley residents were all factors in Sunflower opening here. There are Sunflower Markets in Gilbert, Scottsdale and Tempe.
"Our core customer is the Fry’s and Bashas’ shopper who is interested in their health and saving money," Millsap says. Thirty-five percent of Sunflower’s floor space is devoted to produce, which compares to 20 percent to 25 percent in the traditional grocery store, according to the Arizona Food Marketing game," says company vice president Kevin Easler. "Our goal is to get Americans to eat healthy. People who eat more fruits and vegetables are healthier." The Sprouts demographic is primarily 35 and older, and female.
Which is not that much different than the Henry’s shopper, female between the ages of 25 and 40. According to Kristi Estes, spokeswoman for Henry’s, the market’s focus is "whole health," not unlike its parent company, Wild Oats.
"Wild Oats has more of an organic emphasis," says Estes. With Henry’s, the mantra is good pricing and good health. Unlike Wild Oats, the Henry’s shopper doesn’t shop the entire store. There is one Valley location for Henry’s with a second one scheduled to open in Gilbert next year.
Back at Moreno Farms, customers have no specialty items from which to choose. Or meats, Or bakery. Moreno, and wife Christina, do one thing — produce. Their cliental is primarily Hispanic and Mormon families who have to stretch their dollar. For these customers, vegetables and fruits aren’t a new eating regime. They are part of their food culture, one they could afford.
But it is the produce that gets customers through the door.
"Everyone buys produce," Millsap says. "It’s the common denominator as far as shoppers go."
Where Sunflower Markets bills itself as a one-stop shopping, Sprouts — another relatively new market in town — does not.
Functional food terms
Vitamins and minerals: Natural substances contained in a wide variety of foods shown to be essential to maintaining healthy body systems
Carbohydrates, proteins and fats: Compounds found in foods that the body uses to generate energy or build cells
Phytochemicals: Natural plant compounds that may provide a variety of health benefits. Many of the bright colors in fruits and vegetables come from phytochemicals.
Antioxidants: Plant substances that protect the body by neutralizing free radicals, or unstable oxygen molecules, which can damage cells and lead to poor health
Source: National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion
Alliance. The remainder of Sunflower’s floor space is devoted to specialty food items, baked goods, deli items, meat and cheeses.