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With unprecedented collaboration, supermarkets, produce suppliers and industry organizations have joined the fight against childhood obesity, and many of them have a secret weapon to help win the cause this back-to-school season: cartoon characters.
From Disney favorites to Marvel superheroes to ?Sesame Street? and custom creations, cartoon characters are helping to get more fruits and vegetables into shopping carts and children?s diets than ever before.
Last month, the iconic ?Sesame Street? characters became the latest colorful faces to hit produce departments. Their debut was made possible by a national movement started by the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) and Sesame Workshop to provide suppliers and retailers with turnkey resources to ?Sesame Street? characters royalty-free, dubbed ?Eat Brighter!?
In mid-July, East Coast Fresh introduced some of the market?s first Eat Brighter products, which are designed to inspire children ages 2 to 5 and their families to eat fresh fruits and vegetables. The Savage, Md.-based company placed Ernie-endorsed fresh pineapple chunks and Big Bird-themed carrot and celery sticks in some 2,500 East Coast supermarkets, including Food Depot and Tops.
On Aug. 6, Mars Super Markets, a 17-store chain based in Baltimore, became the first retailer to spotlight its ?Sesame Street?-branded assets. At an in-store event showcasing its participation in Eat Brighter, the chain revealed strategically placed Sesame Street items that are intended to draw shoppers from the front door to the produce department.
This month, The Oppenheimer Group rolled out mesh bags filled with seedless, easy-to-peel citrus featuring a cartoon rendition of Cookie Monster. The Cookie Monster citrus bag is available in 2- and 3-pound configurations.
?Close on its heels are kiwifruit, peppers, mangoes, avocados and apples with various fun character applications,? notes James Milne, director of marketing for the Vancouver, British Columbia-based company.
?It?s our sincere hope that the ?Sesame Street? characters will turn the fresh fruit consumption dial in a measurable way,? continues Milne. ?We?ve been learning about life from these guys for over 40 years, so there?s a good chance their presence and message in the produce section will be strong enough to resonate. Ideally, they will deliver the breakthrough we?ve all been striving for and elevate the rate of fresh produce consumption for the next generation.?
?We can change the trajectory of childhood obesity,? agrees Cathy Burns, president of Newark, Del.-based PMA, about the industry movement that?s quickly gaining momentum.
?Kids see 5,500 commercials for junk food a year and just 100 for healthy food ? and that?s all healthy food, not just produce,? notes Burns. ?Our industry needs to change that share of voice, and create an inspirational connection to fruits and vegetables.?
According to the Prevention Institute, in Oakland, Calif., nearly all (98 percent) of the thousands of food advertisements viewed by children a year are for products high in fat, sugar or sodium.
?If we don?t change the eating habits of this generation of children, they?ll be the first not to outlive their parents,? asserts Burns. ?If that isn?t a call to action, I don?t know what is.?
The Bright Side
The Eat Brighter marketing tool kit is available on PMA?s website. For a nominal administrative fee ($150 to $950 for PMA members, depending on size), retailers and suppliers can use the graphics, within the parameters of the style guide, to create their own unique campaigns through 2016.
Additionally, PMA recently created an Eat Brighter PLU sticker for bulk items, and updated the marketing toolkit with a back-to-school theme.
?These are assets that on a licensing basis, large organizations would pay millions for,? Burns says about the campaign, which is now available in the United States and Canada.
?It?s the first time we?ve seen suppliers and retailers work together this closely to determine how they can differentiate these assets and begin to change the conversation about fruits and vegetables across the industry,? she adds.
?PMA brought the industry a low-cost opportunity with the potential for a very high return in the form of increased consumption,? says Milne. ?The fact that no licensing fee exists for the first two years of Eat Brighter reduces the risk for marketers and gives us the chance to drive sales momentum to set the stage for the future.? Burns doesn?t yet know what will become of the licensing agreement with New York-based Sesame Workshop after 2016. ?If it?s successful, we?ll see if it makes sense to continue beyond that,? she says.
Fruit and Veggies Save the Day
It?s back-to-school season, and parents are looking for simple solutions for healthier lunches and nutritious after-school snacks. With that in mind, a number of produce suppliers have recently introduced lunchbox and snacking essentials with cartoon cachet.
Naturipe Farms, of Salinas, Calif, recently introduced fresh berries featuring Disney princess characters for a spring promotion, while Cashmere, Wash.-based Crunch Pak, in partnership with Marvel Entertainment, in New York, has launched a line of meal replacement Snackers. Marvel Super Heroes appear on packages of Snackers fresh sliced apples, which are accompanied by such other tidbits as grapes, cheese and pretzels.
Original cartoon characters also encourage kids to cuddle up to fruits and veggies. Stemilt and Sunkist have captured the kid market for smaller apples, pears and oranges with colorful packaging that features smiling cartoon fruit. And packages of Wonderful Halos call out to kids with a grinning, halo-topped Mandarin character.
Orlando, Fla.-based Produce for Kids (PFK) understands the power of cartoon characters when it comes to getting kids excited about eating healthful foods. Dedicated to educating families on the benefits of healthy eating, providing simple meal solutions and raising money for children?s nonprofit organizations, PFK has teamed since 2012 with Sprout, the 24-hour preschool television channel reaching more than 55 million U.S. homes.
This month, PFK launched a new tool for families interested in packing more nutritious lunches. The Power Your Lunchbox Pledge, located on a micro-site that links from the PFK website, offers lunchbox-friendly recipes, easy dinner ideas and downloadable coupons to families who take the pledge to pack healthier, produce-including lunches. For each pledge, participating companies have agreed to donate 25 cents to www.donorschoose.org.
?I know as a parent, and especially as a working parent, it?s a daunting task to get the lunchbox packed with something healthy that will sustain kids all day,? admits Director of Marketing Communications Amanda Keefer. ?Power Your Lunchbox is armed with everything families need to get the year started right.?
The pledge, currently being promoted across all PFK social platforms and those of participating produce companies, will culminate in an Aug. 20 Twitter party.
?Technology, especially social media, is so important to getting the message out,? asserts Keefer. ?People are using Facebook almost as a search engine now. They?ll search for recipes that way.?
PFK also started a Power Your Lunchbox community on Google+ last month. ?We?re doing a lot on Google+ now, too, and we?ve definitely found a new demographic of parent that tends to be more savvy technology-wise,? she adds.
Packing healthier lunchboxes and serving vitamin-packed after-school snacks are now easier than ever, thanks to the spate of new and convenient produce introductions.
Pero Family Farms Food Co., in Delray Beach, Fla., recently launched the ?Family Grown in the USA? campaign featuring its Mini Sweet Peppers. After receiving continuous positive consumer feedback about how much children enjoy the mini sweet peppers for snacks, Pero now sells the item to multiple school districts for inclusion in school lunches and snack programs.
Duda Farm Fresh Foods, in Oviedo, Fla., is another produce company working with the school foodservice segment. Its Dandy single-serve celery stick packs make it easy for school lunch programs and parents to incorporate more vegetables into kids? diets. The packs are available in 1.6-ounce, 2.5-ounce and 3-ounce single servings.
Berries are big with kids, especially when they can eat them on the run. Northbay Produce, in Traverse City, Mich., now offers washed and ready-to-eat blueberry snack packs made for lunchboxes and on-the-go snacking. Each individual serving contains 1.5 ounces of blueberries, packed in 3-count configurations.
Coral Gables, Fla.-based Del Monte Fresh Produce N.A. Inc. recently expanded its fresh-cut fruit and vegetable product offerings to include complete-meal/single-serve salad bowls and fresh fruit and protein snack packs under the Nature Made brand. The new snack pack product range includes a Nature Made Turkey and Swiss Snack Pack featuring red grapes red apple slices turkey slices Swiss cheese and crackers.
And what about back-to-school breakfast on the go? Del Monte Fresh Produce has it covered with the new Nature Made Turkey Sausage Links & Pancakes Pack containing grapes buttermilk pancakes apples turkey breakfast sausage and syrup.
?If we don?t change the eating habits of this generation of children, they?ll be the first not to outlive their parents. If that isn?t a call to action, I don?t know what is.?
?Cathy Burns, PMA
?I know as a parent, and especially as a working parent, it?s a daunting task to get the lunchbox packed with something healthy that will sustain kids all day.?
?Amanda Keefer, Produce for Kids