Diamonds in the Rough

Hiring teens in the produce section
Seek ye the diamond in the rough.

The economy slows down, and produce departments start looking for answers to boost business and gain new customers. Many times we have resources available to us that are right in front of our eyes, but we just can't see them.

One of these unpolished jewels may be the teenagers who make up an untapped market in your community. Take a minute to consider what they have to offer to you and the co-op. Today's teens:

  • want to be part of the community but not always in the conventional ways offered;
  • are inquisitive about new ideas and learning how things work;

What do you have to offer them? Let's start with co-ops in general. The definition of co-ops is a pretty good calling card to attract these future customers.

"A cooperative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise. Cooperatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, and solidarity. In the tradition of their founders, cooperatives members believe in ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility, and caring for others."

This statement rings true to many of our teens' needs and desires. And our produce departments have even more to offer. We sell organic produce, which allows teens to be part of something that makes a positive difference in the world present and future. Many of us work with local farmers, and this can provide an opportunity for teens to gain a better understanding of how their food is grown and the importance of its place in a strong local economy. We have the most current information on GMOs and irradiation, hot issues that will have a major impact on their lives.

If they are considering vegetarianism, what better place to work than produce? We not only have the best food but also the books and resources that can address many of the concerns.

If they are concerned about weight control (and believe me they are -- nearly 34 million Americans are obese, and another 45 million are overweight), this an opportunity for you to offer classes that focus on exercise and replacing fatty foods with a daily intake of great tasting fresh fruits and vegetables. With a healthy appetite at this age they can eat all they want. Your store can give them answers that will work now and for the rest of their lives.

How about acne? Often a change in diet that lessens intake of junk and fast foods and that increases fiber from fresh foods has beneficial effects on this problem. A bountiful display with information on the benefits of these items and an active tasting demo could draw them in. Or perhaps you can team up with the supplement department and hold classes that offer herbal and supplements solutions to this age-old malady, along with instructions on how to use fresh papaya and the skins of cucumbers as a facial rub to neutralize facial acid wastes.

Learning to take an active role in finding solutions can create positive life-long health habits. Believe me, these teens won't forget where they got answers to these problems.

But how are they going to know that yours is the happening place to shop? How are they going to know that the co-op really cares about them and their community?

You could do short commercials on the hip radio stations, featuring easy to use nutritional or organic farming information. Sponsor events at local schools. Better yet, do what I did this past year: go into the health and nutrition or cooking classes and have a dialog about fresh organic produce. Bring lots of fresh seasonal examples to try, and let the fun begin. They may not like everything but you're bound to make an impression.

During my visit I gained many new pink lady apple converts who didn't even know this fruit existed. My own daughter gained a new appreciation for Bosc pears. Members of the class were fascinated to find out bits of historical facts and folklore that surround many of the items, and they were dismayed but very interested in what is happening to their food supply.

You'll have to do your homework and to think about it from the perspective of what would have interested you at this age. Make sure you understand the cultural food sensibilities of your community. These efforts will make your presentation feel more real and comfortable. If you don't have the time or the personality to do this extra work, perhaps someone on your crew would love the opportunity.

You never know where a treasure will be found, but if you look to your local teens, I bet you'll find the future to be bright.

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