When you do your weekly shopping trip through the produce section of the supermarket, chances are you grab some carrots, apples, bananas, and maybe some lettuce. But what about the thousands of other varieties of fruits and vegetables that are out there? If Melissa’s/ World Variety Produce Inc., the country’s largest distributor of specialty produce, has its way, you’ll soon be eating more varieties of fruits and vegetables than you ever knew existed.
Recently we had a chance to tour through Melissa’s 300,000-square-foot office/warehouse complex, located just east of Los Angeles, as a part of our Real Food series. The tour gave us a fascinating look at the many varieties of produce that are out there (we discovered quite a few that we’d never heard of) and made us even more resolute in our determination to incorporate more varieties of fruits and vegetables into our routine. All told, Melissa’s distributes more than 1200 varieties of fruits and vegetables throughout the year, with about 750 varieties in the warehouse at any given day (depending on seasonal availability).
The complex is humming 24/7, as deliveries arrive at the building throughout the night and workers sort and pack produce for delivery throughout the day. The warehouse is basically a sprawling maze of different rooms, all set at different temperatures according to the needs of the specific fruit or vegetable. The coldest room, for example, houses baby veggies and greens like rapini and bok choy; while the papayas, cucumbers, and mangoes get to hang out in a room that’s set at 65 degrees.
In the massive produce prep area, workers sort the produce and get it package-ready. Even the smallest black spot on a pepper can doom the whole shipment, so workers are careful to sort out the “bad” ones (they are sent out to compost) and keep the best ones in good shape.
Some of the packaging involves a certain amount of presentation. The celery root, for instance, is basically a big brown root ball with a bunch of green sprouts coming out the top. The workers snip the wilted green sprouts but leave the sprightly ones intact so the celery root looks a little more lively. At another table, a worker trims the dirty roots off the base of lemongrass stalks so they look a little “cleaner” and more uniform in size at the market. And at yet another station, a worker packaging Dutch Yellow and Ruby Gold potatoes keeps a careful balance so that the two varieties are equally represented in each package.
“Our new products have always been the lifeblood of our company,” says director of public relations Robert Schueller, as we enjoy a snack of unusual fruits including rambutan, passion fruit, and baby kiwi (there’s no fuzz on baby kiwis, so you can just eat them whole). “We want consumers to get inspired beyond the ordinary carrot or celery. There are just so many options out there.”
Melissa’s would love to see Americans eat more produce, especially in light of the new Choose My Plate dietary guidelines. “America doesn’t know enough about produce,” adds Scheuller. “And when people think that fries and ketchup count as a vegetable and a fruit, we’re really off the mark.”
That’s one of the reasons Melissa’s was inspired to publish two books so far (with a third coming in December) aimed at helping to educate people on different varieties of produce, plus cooking tips and nutritional information. The newest book will be a look at the 50 most nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables.
Among the fruits that was completely new to us on our Melissa’s visit were the pepino melons, pictured above. They’re not technically melons; they’re a member of the nightshade family so they’re more closely related to tomatoes or eggplant. With a not-so-sweet flavor somewhat akin to a cucumber, they can be eaten plain or chopped up for salads or salsas.
Of course while Melissa’s loves to introduce grownups to new fruits and vegetables, they’re trying for the kid audience too. The company has developed educational/outreach lessons and materials that it uses in elementary schools. If you get kids interested in fruits and vegetables while they’re young, you have a better chance of making it a lifelong habit, says Schueller. “Plus, I’ve never heard of a parent saying, “No, I’m not going to buy you grapes.”
You can find Melissa’s products at most major supermarkets around the country. If you’re looking for something specific and you don’t see it in your store, or if you want to order gift baskets, you can order online from melissas.com.