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I grew up in Territorial Hawaii when canned foods were king. In the 1950s, the technology was not available for the speedy delivery of fresh and frozen foods to the islands. Most kitchen shelves in Honolulu homes were stacked with cans of meat, soup and vegetables.
My mother made casseroles with canned tuna and cream of mushroom soup. We heated up cans of baked beans to serve with canned ham and sometimes for dessert we ate canned fruit cocktail dotted with maraschino cherries.
My friends in Punahou School’s class of 1959 — the last students at Punahou to graduate with the words “Territory of Hawaii” on our degrees — were served canned food and drinks routinely at school, starting with canned tomato and grapefruit juice at recess in the elementary grades.
We eagerly stood in line when the Punahou cafeteria offered Spam with rice and gravy. As teenagers, we liked to eat tuna sandwiches on white bread from the school’s snack bar, which we wolfed down with potato chips.
So I was taken aback recently reading an article in the Wall Street Journal that said the sales of canned tuna — so beloved by my generation — had dropped 42 percent in the last three decades through 2016.
WSJ writers Jesse Newman and Annie Gasparro said millennials are partly responsible for the sales slump in canned tuna. They wrote, “Many can’t be bothered to open and drain the cans, or fetch utensils and dishes to eat the tuna.” They quoted StarKist’s president of marketing Andy Mecs who said, “A lot of millennials don’t even own can openers.”
According to the market research group Mintel cited in the WSJ article, just 32 percent of shoppers aged 18 to 34 recently bought canned fish, compared with 45 percent of those 55 or older.
Poor millennials. They get blamed for everything. Clearly, the decline in canned foods’ popularity is not just because the younger generation considerers opening cans daunting, but also because many shoppers today are looking for fresher, less processed food without chemical additives and sodium and sugar.
Who would have ever thought Campbell’s chicken noodle soup, served to us so lovingly by our mothers when we were sick, would ever go out of style? Or that the Campbell’s tomato soup we often ate with grilled cheese and tuna sandwiches for lunch would be on its way out?
Artist Andy Warhol made Campbell’s red and white soup cans seem like they would be around forever by elevating them to works of art fetching millions of dollars in his 1962 series of paintings called “Campbell Soup Cans.”
Canned food companies are repositioning themselves to fight slipping sales by acquiring new companies that are perceived to manufacture healthier foods. They are also responding to millennials’ and other customers’ need for convenience by making their containers easier to open.
Campbell sells its soups in pop-top cans. It also offers some soups in plastic containers that can be slid right into a microwave, to be eaten directly out of the disposable container after the soup is warmed.
StarKist is selling its tuna in pouches that don’t have to be drained. Bumble Bee Foods is offering seasoned tuna in pouches that include their own spoons. And Chicken of the Sea has started to offer tuna salad, ready made in throwaway cups.
With canned foods under attack today as inconvenient and unhealthy, it is comforting to know for a Territorial like me that one of our beloved products, the most unhealthy canned food on the planet, remains popular in Hawaii: Spam.
“Hawaii goes against the trend toward fresher, less processed food with its love for canned meats, “ says Hoagy Gamble, whose food brokerage company, L.H. Gamble, represents Hormel Foods, the makers of Spam.
Gamble’s son, Scott, says Spam has seen record sales growth in Hawaii in the last two years with an 8.6 percent hike in 2017 and 6 percent growth last year.
“Spam is an iconic brand, a comfort food that people have grown up with here,” says Scott Gamble. “To residents, it is seen as a treat to pick up on the run such as a Spam musubi grabbed at a 7-Eleven store or a staple to sit down to enjoy with rice and fried eggs at breakfast.”
Gamble says Spam offers consumers protein at a relatively low cost.
I remember singer Melveen Leed once telling her audience during a show that when she was young and broke she ate a lot of Spam. She said all it took her for her make dinner for her and her children was some rice and a single can of Spam that she fried up with an onion and a head of cabbage.
Hoagy Gamble notes that “Hawaii is the only place in the United States where you will find Spam on the menu at McDonald’s or Burger King.”
But even Spam has bowed to millennials. Spam that once had to be opened with a key found on the bottom of the can now features pop-top openers.
And for can opener-challenged millennials, Spam is also sold now in 3-ounce pouches you can tear open with your fingers.
What’s next? Perhaps Spam will soon be available ready made with rice and gravy in plastic microwaveable containers with attached spoons.
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