Growing Up Organic

College kids spur demand for organic, natural foods

Published in CSP Daily News

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Nashville, Tenn., and Boulder, Colo., have become incubators for a trend likely to influence the mix of snacks, beverages and prepared foods sold by every convenience store in the nation.

Nashville's Vanderbilt University is readying to open Nectar, an approximately 900-sq.-ft. c-store dedicated to organic, natural and healthy products. The store, scheduled to open in late August, complements six other c-stores situated inside on-campus residential dorms and will offer organic foods, beverages, meals and assorted dry goods, according [image-nocss] to Spiros Vergatos, assistant director of operations for Vanderbilt Dining.

We've slowly put in these types of retail products in our convenience stores, and we've always had upscale products like gourmet cheeses, Vergatos told CSP Daily News. If [students] can maintain this lifestyle away from their parents for four years, it definitely has application away from campus. Most of our graduates are going to be heads of household, so they'll be making enough money to maintain that lifestyle because organic or natural foods generally carry higher price points.

The University of Colorado at Boulder, meanwhile, launched the Piazanos grab-and-go caf a in January. The caf a offers a broad menu of organic and natural foods such as pizza, pasta and sandwiches. School officials initially expected the caf a to serve about 500 meals per day to a fraction of the campus' 5,500 students. But the concept has blasted those projections out of the water by moving approximately 1,600 meals per day, according to general manager Janice Torkildsen.

Today's kids are growing up with [naturals and organics] because their parents shop at Wild Oats or Whole Foods, and when they're leaving home, they're expecting to find them elsewhere, Torkildsen told CSP Daily News. I talked to a few students [recently], and they were talking about how they're more aware of caloric intakes and what something's doing to their health. Plus they're getting the education from the media.

In addition to pizza, sandwiches and made-to-order organic pasta, the 1,100-sq.-ft. Piazanos also offers gourmet salads, fresh-cut fruit, IZZE natural sodas, Hansen's beverages, organic milk and products from local vendors. Torkildsen said she has begun adding some of the same items to an on-campus Village Market c-store with equally positive results.

The term organic refers to products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act. The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole.

The organic/natural trend has been gathering strength for more than a decade. But what had been popular primarily among fringe groups has gained traction in the general population. In 2003, the most recent data available, organic food sales hit $10.4 billion, or about 1.9% of the total U.S. grocery market, according to the Organic Trade Association. Organic foods sales have been growing at a clip of about 20% per year since 1990.

The masses are becoming more aware, said Torkildsen. A few years ago I tried to bring in organics to retail and put them beside the regular snacks, and it didn't work out. But I'm starting to see a turn. Now we might have Frito-Lay chips with Boulder Natural chips right next to them. The [bag of Boulder Natural chips] is more expensive, but these kids are making a conscious choice and paying for it.

On July 24 and 25, the National Association of College & University Food Services, or NACUFS, will host a c-store workshop preceding its annual conference at the Fairmont Royal York in Toronto. The two-day workshop will offer insight into the purchasing behaviors of today's 18-to-24-year-old students from institutional retailers who interact with these consumers every day. More information is available by visiting NACUFS online at www.nacufs.org.