Before the pandemic struck, most consumers in the United States spent more than half of their monthly food budget at restaurants.
That all changed last March.
At the industry’s annual Potato Expo in early January, experts reported data showing 81 percent of meals were prepared at home in 2020. Potatoes were characterized as a “pandemic powerhouse,” since fresh cooking vegetables, primarily potatoes and salad, were behind only beef, fresh snacks, chicken and bacon in retail sales.
The industry saw a 13 percent increase in 10-pound potato bagged sales. Consumers recognized the “stock ability” of potatoes, as well as the great value for home-cooked meals for a relatively low price.
Keith McGovern, R.D. Offutt Farms President, joined a group of panelists at a session, Getting potatoes into the mouths of consumers. “Potatoes gained household penetration during the pandemic,” Keith said. “Now our industry needs to present potatoes to young consumers in new, creative and interesting ways.”
While potatoes thrived in retail markets, the food service industry declined – primarily sit-down restaurants, cafeterias and banquet facilities. Keith said that making adjustments quickly doesn’t work well for farmers, who have already put last year’s crop into storage and were either planting or planning in the late spring.
“Despite these challenges, our industry was able to increase processed potatoes into the fresh market and support the federal box program as part of COVID-19 relief efforts,” Keith said. “The industry did an amazing job to keep food on the shelves, ensuring people had food to eat during the pandemic.”
While COVID-19 continues in 2021, the food service industry is expected to rebound, but that rebound may take until the third quarter.
In the meantime, industry experts are looking to capitalize on strong retail potato sales. As more consumers use e-commerce to purchase groceries, the industry is boosting pictures and adding search terms to make it easier to find potatoes and potato products.
Additionally, industry members are looking for ways to help consumers recognize the nutritional benefits of potatoes, which are high in potassium and vitamin C. Younger generations want to know that their produce is responsibly grown and adheres to sustainable farming practices like those in place at R.D. Offutt Farms.
Keith wrapped up the session by offering suggestions to keep the new-found younger consumers interested in potatoes. “Let’s get potatoes into the hands of celebrity chefs who are on social media, making cooking cool. This presence can attract the younger buyer, who are the buyers of the future.”