Northeast Ag Students Get a Taste of AWG Fresh Foods Show; Pantry Benefits From Donated Food
May 1, 2023
NORFOLK, Neb. – Several Northeast Community College students were like kids in a candy store. Or make that a grocery store.
Agriculture students of Brandon Keller’s Ag Marketing Systems classes and Dr. Trentee Bush’s horticulture classes were invited by Associated Wholesale Grocers (AWG) to participate in its annual Fresh Show held in the College’s Lifelong Learning Center. The interior of the building was set up like a grocery store with products and displays with vendors promoting their products. In addition, hundreds of fresh flowers and plants adorned the LLC’s atrium.
“We were out here last year and we thought it would be good to connect with the college to find out if there is anything that we could do to shed light on what we do,” Jason Anderson, director of fresh sales at AWG, told the students. “We really want to open it up and expose you to what we do, what we’re passionate about and what we feel is very important.”
Anderson explained AWG’s business model to the students. It serves over 1,100 member companies and over 3,400 locations throughout 31 states from nine full-line wholesale divisions. The Norfolk distribution center serves stores in Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming. The company, founded in 1924, is the nation’s largest food cooperative wholesaler to independently owned and operated supermarkets. Independent grocers may be as large as 200+ store operations to stores that have one location. Consolidated sales were $12.3 billion in 2022.
Anderson said that AWG operates as a cooperative.
“So the way our business is structured is the people that you see out there today at the fresh show – the store owners – all have to invest in our coop in order to become a member. And once they are a member and they go through the process, they buy groceries and other items, and we help them grow.”
Anderson offered statistics that demonstrate the true size of AWG. For example, a load of bananas per day through AWG equals approximately 350,000 cases. That comes to 31 million bananas over a one-year period. Also, the 10.5 million miles AWG trucks drive is equivalent to circumnavigating the Earth 422 times.
“We have to make sure our trucks are running because we’re constantly delivering groceries,” Anderson said. “Our drivers are some of the best I’ve ever seen. And with all the weather we had this past winter navigating blizzards and the like, it’s amazing how those guys know where to go to get to the stores and take care of our members.”
Anderson stressed the importance of deliveries citing the pandemic in 2020. He said grocery stores were integral during that time and still are.
“The employees at the warehouse worked hard to get those items picked and loaded onto the trucks and getting those loads out to the stores because people were in quarantine and didn’t want to go to the bigger stores. They preferred the smaller, independent grocers. Our stores really stepped up in our local communities.”
The show is described as an upbeat occasion where AWG works on behalf of its members stores. Anderson said if stores are looking for items such as more organic products, competitive prices or more deals, they will work with their members on their behalf.
“Essentially, our fresh show is an opportunity for our members – our stores – to come in and meet with vendors on innovation, new products, opportunity buys and anything they can do to buy in and provide a value to their store when we deliver that product and offer value to the consumers,” he said. “What you see out there is a lot of people placing orders, people talking about what’s going on in markets and things of that nature.”
The Northeast instructors were pleased to be part of the event. Keller said it was a good opportunity for the students.
“We are grateful for the opportunity AWG provided for our students to learn more about where their food comes from and the importance of wholesaler-retailer relationships,” he said. “In our Ag Marketing Systems course we are learning about food pricing and how food is marketed to consumers. The Fresh Show gave students the opportunity to experience what we were talking about in class first-hand, ask questions to vendors, and have the opportunity to learn about food products they are unfamiliar with.”
At the conclusion of his presentation, Anderson told the students that the big treat for them that day was that they had the opportunity to join independent store owners in walking the show floor.
“There’s pizza. There are cookies, brownies – all sorts of products. Enjoy it! Go out there and don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to the vendors and just ask questions.”
The students, who were properly credentialed, then joined those navigating the floor to see what’s new, speak with vendors, and sample the many products that were available for consumption. Tony Bisignano, regional business developer for PFS Brands, was among the vendors who spoke with Northeast students. He told them to take advantage of what was offered during the show.
“This is a great opportunity for the students to see all the varieties of brands and product lines offered through AWG,” he said. “I told them, ‘Dive in, eat and take samples.’ That’s the whole purpose of being here. It’s sampling and tasting and seeing all the different types of products, seeing the products and the quality of the products.”
At the end of the day, the vendors with displays in the show choose not to take all their products back with them, especially perishables. They, instead, donated their remaining products to the Northeast Community College Food Bank.
Lori Trowbridge, executive director of college engagement at Northeast, said over 125 students received boxes full of food from the vendors. The food was set up in one location, which allowed them to come in and shop. In addition, Chartwells, Northeast’s food service provider, assisted with slicing the many whole hams available so the food could be packaged and distributed to more students.
“There was so much food, and our students were very grateful,” Trowbridge said. “One student who received a box of food commented ‘You have no idea how much this helps me.’ She is a nursing student with a small child. We’re so appreciative to AWG and the vendors for allowing the Northeast Community College Food Pantry to receive this generous donation on behalf of our students.”