Josh Sosland, PortraitJosh Sosland, Editor.

It may be tempting for milling and baking to shift attention to other issues after the termination of a nearly 10-year effort to launch an 8-figure baked foods checkoff program. The effort fell short and was not only lengthy, but expensive, at times acrimonious, and ultimately dispiriting to numerous supporters.

While grain-based foods has no shortage of issues requiring attention, none eclipse in importance the development and execution of an effective product promotion program. The industry should waste no time in taking a hard look at what alternatives to the checkoff may be achievable.

In considering alternatives, it’s worth remembering the two overarching and widely-held beliefs that drove the decision to pursue the checkoff. Interviews of Grain Foods Foundation investors conducted in the early 2010s revealed widespread pride in the group’s work but also showed concern about whether the GFF’s budget was large enough to “move the needle” to reverse a decline in consumption of flour-based foods. Secondly, and closely tied to the first issue, was a belief the cost of funding the GFF was not being shared equitably across the industry since participation was voluntary.

Over time, concern about “freeloaders” has had a corrosive effect on GFF funding with more and more investors either reducing or withdrawing support because of a sense they were subsidizing competitors. The numbers bear out these apprehensions to this day. The budget of the GFF was about $4 million ($6 million plus in 2022 dollars) in the early 2000s and has fallen to about $2 million in recent years. The GFF continues to do exemplary work, but if moving the needle is the objective, more funding is a must. A checkoff program was intended both to give the program greater scale and using objective (if imperfect) measures, spread the costs fairly among businesses that would benefit from the program. Whatever the industry plans next, pursuing scale and equity should be foundational.

Still, why the urgency? The need to promptly explore next steps reflects the fact that already bad conditions for grain-based foods in the early 2010s when the checkoff journey began have worsened measurably in recent years. While dollar sales of fresh bread at retail channels have moved up and down over the past 10 years, the picture is not as ambiguous as that description would suggest. Unit volume, a truer measure of share of stomach, has decreased almost every year. In the most recent five years, unit volume fell 1% in the year ended February 2018, 4.7% in the year ended February 2019, 2.7% in 2020, rose 6% in the pandemic-juiced year ended February 2021 and then tumbled 8.3% in the 12 months ended February 2022, according to data from IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm.

Avoidance of gluten, which appeared to be a fad in the early 2000s, has proven to have staying power that should be expected to endure. Consider the most recent financial results of Flowers Foods, Inc. The company’s flour-free line of Canyon Bakehouse products enjoyed 13.1% volume growth in the quarter ended April 2. At the same time, figures shared by the company suggest combined volume of all its other bread, its “real bread,” was down during the quarter.

Meanwhile, those watching food entrepreneurship trends have observed gluten-free or even grain-free have become almost table stakes for products introduced by startups. Simple Mills has gained traction in the cracker market using a flour made from ground watermelon seeds, flax, sunflower seeds and cashews. Another company, Seconds, is making crackers from upcycled carrot pulp.

While it’s safe to say ground watermelon seeds pose no imminent threat of displacing wheat flour, the new products demonstrate the extraordinary energy and creativity devoted to finding palatable wheat flour alternatives. From these products and others, it is clear wheat flour is losing share.Recent data show per capita flour consumption in 2021 was 129 lbs, down more than 5 lbs since the checkoff effort was launched. Per capita consumption largely was treading water during the first 10 years of the GFF, holding between 133 and 136 lbs. It is only the last several years that the needle has been moving, and in the wrong direction. Per capita flour consumption was greater than in 2021 in 85 of the last 119 years. Only in the 33-year period from 1953-86 and 1989 was the figure lower.

Over the past year, two vocal industry advocates for product promotion died — Ron Turano of Turano Baking and Chuck Sullivan of Interstate Bakeries. Speaking on the subject, Mr. Turano, who was ABA chairman shortly after the GFF was established, struck a hopeful tone in 2006 but also emphasized the need for continued commitment to the effort.

“It is something we have talked about for many, many years,” he said. “We had talked about making things happen, and finally we did. We need to keep it going.”

Fourteen years earlier, in 1992, Mr. Sullivan focused on the need for ABA members themselves, not association professionals, to launch “a nationwide program to increase per capita consumption.” He said the development of a nutrition education program is “not just timely, it’s absolutely essential.” He went on to say ABA members will need to judge the program’s success “by looking in the mirror and asking, ‘What have I done to help?’” Thirty years later, with the checkoff effort abandoned and the demand picture worse than in the early 1990s, Mr. Sullivan’s admonition rings powerfully true once again. From millers and bakers, to allied suppliers, association leadership and even the industry press, the moment is ripe for serious self-reflection … and action. With committed and consistent hands-on leadership from the industry’s top executives, successful product promotion and research remains within reach for grain-based foods.