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Kroger, Gelson's Markets, Mollie Stone's, Spartan Stores, and Shaw's have all gone back to high school, hoping to earn high marks for their support for a national grass-roots promotion designed to get students thinking about what they put into their bodies. At the head of the class is Glaceau, the Whitestone, N.Y.-based maker of VitaminWater, which created the program, called "VitaminSchool."
The goal of the promotion program, which has assumed the form of a traveling road-show contest, is to equip high school kids with knowledge so that they're able to make healthful decisions about their own consumption behavior.
Reduced to its essence, VitaminSchool is actually quite similar in structure and feel to American Idol, Fox TV's pop phenomenon that captivates the nation for nearly six months each year. VitaminSchool features a competition among young students to create inventive, nutritious, and tasty recipes for meals that might be served in their school cafeterias at lunchtime. Three students bearing original recipes are selected to perform live before a panel of celebrity judges at each of 12 stops, in a coast-to-coast road show.
Beginning in Houston in late May, the VitaminSchool tour has been traversing the nation, making stops in Dallas; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Seattle; Chicago; Detroit; Atlanta; Washington, D.C.; New Jersey/Philadelphia; New York; and Boston, before culminating in a "grand finale" -- again in New York -- on June 8. All three local finalists receive $5,000 grants earmarked for their schools' meal programs. In addition, the winner at each stop advances toward the grand finale, where the field will be pared down to the top three who'll compete.
Details of the grand finale were still being finalized at presstime, but one celebrity likely to serve as a judge at the event will lend the proceedings even more of an American Idol feel than they already have. And while the overall winner might not be signed to a recording contract, he or she will receive a grand prize every bit as exciting: a college scholarship worth up to $100,000.
At each stop the student finalists are judged on their recipes' nutritional value and taste by a panel of judges including a nutritionist, a retail partner, a local restaurateur, and a local celebrity.
At the Dallas stop -- actually held about 30 miles outside of town in rural Lake Worth, a setting reminiscent of a set from the high school football film "Friday Night Lights" -- the mood was positively electric. The celebrity judge was Michael Young, the talented shortstop for the Texas Rangers who led the American League in hitting last year. The roving VitaminSchool van was set up in Lake Worth High's parking lot in the shadows of the football field's light towers. As the lunch bell rang, hundreds of students poured into the makeshift stage area, filling up the portable stands lined with colorful banners.
Speakers and cameras were everywhere, as were bottles of VitaminWater, which the students gratefully grabbed to quench their thirst in the bright Texas sun. The excitement of the event was palpable, and Kroger was right there in the middle of it.
"The event was fun. It was engaging," says Gary Huddleston, Kroger's director of administration, on the scene representing his company, which collaborated as a partner at several of the tour's stops in the grocer's retail territories.
"Seeing these kids cooking and being so creative -- I wasn't doing that at 16," recalls Claudia Gonzalez, a Miami-based certified nutritionist, author of the book Gordito Doesn't Mean Healthy, and nutritionist participant in the Glaceau effort. "It's really exciting. As a nutritionist, I'm really happy to be part of the VitaminSchool program, because what we're doing is empowering high school students to learn how to eat healthier. Children today are experiencing diabetes, hypertension, high blood pressure -- things that should be for older people. A nutritionist analyzes what needs to be on a plate to make it healthy. The whole idea is to consume healthy calories -- to eat foods and drink beverages that have a nutritional benefit to them."
In the Los Angeles market the celebrity judge was different, as was the retailer, but the electric atmosphere was the definitely the same.
"It was like a rally," says Yvonne Cooprider, marketing manager for Gelson's Markets, another of Glaceau's retail partners in the program. "Bleachers were set up and all these kids came pouring out for their lunch break. They had people in Glaceau trucks passing out VitaminWater. People were sitting on the bleachers, on the ground, and they were standing. I mean, they were everywhere. And they were so excited, really cheering for the three contestants."
That event was held in Pasadena, a Gelson's stronghold. And given the glitz normally associated with the L.A. market, two celebrity judges were on hand: motocross star Kenny Bartram, who came roaring in on his bike, and TV personality Luke Perry.
"The judges were into it, too," continues Cooprider with an enthusiasm rivaling Paula Abdul's. "They were chowing down, and they all talked about how delicious everything was. I can tell you that Luke Perry was very much enjoying the dishes."
The ambiance was similar at VitaminSchool's stop in Michigan.
"The kids were very into it," says Mike McKeever, an advertising executive with Spartan Stores, Glaceau's retail partner in the Detroit area. "They had a master of ceremonies interacting with them, asking them trivia questions, giving them information in a fun, exciting format. That makes it much more interesting for the students."
McKeever is looking at the VitaminSchool program to yield long-term rewards in the inner-city Detroit market. "I would hope that this would be a starting point to getting the message out there to students," he says. "The ones that were in the competition with recipes were 16, 17 years old. Each one, their recipe was fairly basic, using fresh products, things that were nutritional."
McKeever says he sees the program as being helpful in spreading the word and promoting healthy consumption to lower-income kids. "This will help let them know there are choices other than fast-food restaurants. Once you educate the consumer, it's a win-win, because they realize they can actually make meals at home that are a lot less expensive than drive-through restaurants, and they're also providing healthier meals for their families."
Another ally in promoting the word to inner-city kids is, at face value, the unlikeliest of candidates: rap star 50 Cent. VitaminSchool follows the Q4 '05 launch of a new VitaminWater variety, Formula 50, an all-natural, low-calorie, vitamin-enhanced grape-flavored beverage inspired by the rap icon. Indeed, 50 Cent, known as much for his health consciousness as his street image, owns a small stake in Glaceau.
"You'd be surprised how different he really is from what many people perceive him to be," confides Cooprider, who admits that Formula 50 is "one of [her] favorites."
"I'm not a great fan of grape juice or grape flavor, but I honestly enjoy its very light grape flavor, and from me that's a great compliment," she says, adding that Focus is her personal favorite variety of VitaminWater. Like her colleagues at Kroger and Spartan Stores, Cooprider sees a huge potential upside for Gelson's Markets as a result of participation in a grass-roots program of this nature.
"It fits right in with some of the initiatives we were already working on," she explains. "We work with the Los Angeles Unified School District, distributing pamphlets from our dietitian that are provided to teachers and parents to help them make more healthful decisions at home. We understand, obviously, that since nutrition is such a huge component of people's ability to learn and think throughout the day, it's incumbent on us to make sure that we do our part in educating. And the very fact that Glaceau is offering a $100,000 national scholarship sealed the deal for us. They really put their money where their mouth was, and I thought that was fantastic."
For Kroger, participation in the VitaminSchool program is a huge opportunity to communicate with -- and develop loyalty among -- an entire generation of new consumers.
"That's exactly right," says Huddleston. "It's a huge value to Kroger in that it's educating the consumer. A more informed consumer, we believe, is a great customer because they know what they want, they come to our stores, and, hopefully, we provide them with the organic, all-natural, and nutritious products that they want. So we think it's a terrific partnership with Glaceau."
According to Huddleston, the partnership with Glaceau can be seen as part of the evolution of the mainstream grocery environment, an area in which Kroger sees itself at the forefront.
"We promote healthy eating and healthy lifestyles in our stores in a number of different ways," he says. "We have a dedicated area, 'Nature's Market,' with all-natural products, products with no additives, and organics. A lot of our customers with food allergies come to Nature's Market to get gluten-free, wheat-free products."
Gelson's also sees something of an "afterglow effect" of participating in a program with such a healthy positioning.
"I appreciated also that for the most part, Glaceau partnered with regional chains that already had a good reputation in the neighborhoods they served," says Cooprider. "That ensured credibility in the minds of consumers, so there wouldn't be a disconnect between the stores that were offering the program and what they were doing and saying in their day-to-day retail life."
Cooprider points to a report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University that has been getting a lot of play in the media, as an indication that people are finally starting to get it.
"The CASA report only confirms what we've known all along, that families who eat at home and congregate regularly at the dinner table are healthier in all regards," notes Cooprider. According to the report, besides the obvious nutritional benefits of eating a home-cooked meal as opposed to a Big Mac on the run, children from families who regularly dine together experience fewer behavioral problems in school, and are significantly less likely to get involved in high-risk behaviors such as drugs, alcohol, and early sexual behavior.
Cooprider sees Gelson's participation in the VitaminSchool program as a way to tie everything together -- thereby setting the stage for a successful long-term relationship.
"I would hope that what will stay with those students and their parents is an understanding of the commitment that Gelson's has to providing the types of fresh foods and ingredients that allow their students to come up with these great recipes. And that there's a tie in their minds between what Glaceau did with their VitaminSchool program for the kids."
The ultimate goal is to inspire confidence in, and loyalty to, Gelson's.
"We also hope that parents see us as their partner in the quest to educate their children, and to provide more healthful alternatives for their families," continues Cooprider. "Hopefully, it serves to reiterate the message -- that we offer quality ingredients, and if you want real quality, come to Gelson's -- in the marketplace. It's my hope that the tie has been established and re-established in their minds."
The VitaminSchool program is the brainchild of Darius Bikoff, Glaceau's president and c.e.o. "I was visiting school lunch cafeteria trade shows, and I had something of an epiphany, realizing just how appalling the food was that was being sold to the schools," he says. "I know I wouldn't eat any of that food, and I certainly wouldn't give any to my kids."
Thinking it through, Bikoff realized it wasn't a matter of lack of funds.
"There's a ton of money being spent on food in school systems," he continues. "It's just not being spent on the right foods. I thought the best thing we could do is to show that kids are a lot more sophisticated about nutrition today than they've ever been, and that they actually do like healthier products. So we've taken the show on the road and let them cook their ideal highly nutritious lunches. That's what VitaminSchool is all about.
"This is putting the great ingredients that we get from places like Kroger, Gelson's Markets, Mollie Stone's, Spartan Stores, and Shaw's, and letting the kids whip up some original delicious meals," adds Bikoff. "They're all healthy, they're all low-calorie, they're all low-fat, and they're all natural, and you can see the results for yourself.
McKeever, for one, couldn't agree more with the program's substance and style.
"It wasn't like they were in a classroom situation and listening to a lecture, or reading from a book, or looking at a PowerPoint presentation," he says. "It was something that really got them involved."
Spartan Stores' mission -- as well as that of the rest of the program's retailer partners -- is to keep them involved.
And, according to Bikoff, don't be surprised if you see some cookbooks with the winning recipes popping up at partner stores in the not-too-distant future. They'll be available "when you buy four VitaminWaters," jokes Huddleston.