Retailers are bent on teaching kids that produce is cool.Merchandisers are turning their produce departments into classrooms and their products into teacher's aids, in hopes of raising a generation of consumers for whom 5 a Day will be a given, rather than an ideal, for produce consumption.With help from suppliers and industry organizations, a growing number of supermarkets have -- in just a few years

Retailers are bent on teaching kids that produce is cool.

Merchandisers are turning their produce departments into classrooms and their products into teacher's aids, in hopes of raising a generation of consumers for whom 5 a Day will be a given, rather than an ideal, for produce consumption.

With help from suppliers and industry organizations, a growing number of supermarkets have -- in just a few years -- started a new movement to market fruits and vegetables to the young set. The curricula include:

Launching fruit and vegetable clubs, akin to the cookie clubs that in-store bakeries have been running for years to encourage frequent visits to the department.

Organizing school tours in stores and holding other special events, often with an educational theme, that draw kids in and acquaint them with the products.

Focusing increasingly on products specifically created or marketed to appeal to children.

Kids are an attractive audience for marketers of all stripes, of course. But for produce, at least, there is the added dividend of trying to sell kids on something that is good for them. Retail produce executives see little downside in that.

What's more, targeting consumers while they're young is an investment in the future, industry executives agreed, because many kids have not yet settled into the eating habits, good or bad, that influence their parents.

Kids also have enormous pull over what their parents buy, which can actually be geared towards the produce department instead of the candy aisle, produce industry sources said. "At my age, I'm pretty much a reprobate when it comes to my eating habits," said Vince Terry, director of produce operations at Harps Food Stores, Springdale, Ark. "Kids haven't fallen into a rut yet. They're still at a developmental stage for good nutrition.

"If we're going to grow 5 a Day, we have to do more than short-term promotions. We have to do long-term promotions. We can influence kids for the rest of their lives," Terry said. 5 a Day For Better Health is the industry's generic promotion campaign to encourage Americans to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

To point the kids stepping into its stores in a healthy direction, Harps has just introduced a 5 a Day snack pack. There are three varieties, and each includes five servings of fresh produce along with a prize.

The chain's first ad for the snack packs broke on July 31, with the packs priced at $1.99. To properly support the promotion, each store was required to have 48 boxes of the packs on display at all times, Terry said.

"I think it's got outstanding potential throughout the store," Terry said. "It's really a meal replacement for the future. I see it as a good vehicle for providing kids with a healthy alternative." The snack packs were developed with 5 a Day co-sponsors the Produce for Better Health Foundation, Newark, Del., and Try-Foods International, Apopka, Fla., he said. "I'm very optimistic about this," he said. Terry said he considers the snack pack to be a replacement for the kids' meals fast-food chains offer. The snacks represent not only a healthy alternative to burgers and fries, but a chance to win back the dollars that kids are getting parents to spend at those outlets.

"In the last few years, produce has probably been the least influential department as far as marketing to kids [is concerned]," he said. Terry has been spreading the 5 a Day message to kids since the Produce for Better Health Foundation teamed with the National Cancer Institute to launch the program on a national level five years ago, he said. Produce managers at all Harp's stores are required to "adopt" a classroom every semester. That involves more than offering kids store tours, he said. "The purpose is to allow managers to be a source of professional information, to provide teachers with any type of product they might need," Terry said. "It's a fantastic program. It's drawn us closer to the community."

Being close to the community is one of the boasts often made by independents. And according to Clark Wood, corporate produce specialist at wholesaler Associated Food Stores, Salt Lake City, that makes it a natural match for school tours.

"Independents are kind of leading the way in tours," he told SN. For his part, Wood has been encouraging his retailers to take part in tours. "Some retailers are mandating that their stores take part as well," he added. "The thrust is still on the school tours. Every year, new kids are always coming up."

At the same time, Associated is seeking ways to expand it kid-oriented activities. Currently, the wholesaler is working with the Utah Department of Agriculture and the state's 5 a Day coalition to develop a series of farm tours, which would take children to growing areas. That new program will even feature a bus "wrapped" with graphic representations of fruits and vegetables, Wood said, that will transport the children to the fields.

Hartville IGA, in Hartville, Ohio, has ongoing programs that target children, said produce manager James Mikstay, but the retailer is getting a particularly good response when it focuses on more intensive, short-term promotions.

The retailer participated in a display contest during National 5 a Day Week in 1994, fashioning a promotion that, in turn, involved contests for kids. Hartville IGA gave out trophies and fruits and vegetables to participants. The program was so successful that Mikstay repeated the contest last year and intends to do it again for this year's National 5 a Day Week in September. "Kids love it," he said. Store tours are also part of Hartville's agenda. And Mikstay has hosted Billy Broccoflower and Cris P. Saladmander, costumed characters of Tanimura & Antle, Salinas, Calif., in the store.

Under IGA's auspices, Hartville was also recently involved in a "healthy kids' day" at the local YMCA, where Hartville IGA gave away boxes of produce. "We had over a thousand kids at the Y. It was a madhouse," he recalled with a laugh. Kids' clubs centered around the produce department and its offerings are another marketing tactic gaining momentum with operators large and small.

Several divisions of the Kroger Co., based in Cincinnati, for example, are running kids' clubs, according to a source familiar with Kroger. The kids receive a membership club card, which entitles them to a free sample each month from the Kroger produce department. The company has been touting the club in circulars. One ad, running in the circular from the chain's central division, based in Indianapolis, encouraged teachers to schedule 5 a Day tours with the local Kroger's produce manager.

"The children will sample produce and learn about the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables," the ad read. "Plus, they'll receive a Dole Kids Cookbook and a refrigerator magnet."

Kroger officials could not be reached for comment.

Retailers across the country are looking to tap into the kids' market for good will and good sales, according to Leigh-Anne Perialas, marketing director for Try-Foods. Besides acting as an official supplier for 5 a Day, Try-Foods also customizes programs for individual chains, she said. "We can't do enough kids' stuff. We're doing a lot of different things for kids."

Like other industry members, Perialas reiterated how much easier it is to set healthy eating habits early on, rather than trying to reform adults already set in their ways. "Retailers want to hook them early, so they don't have to lure them back as adults," she said. "And with kids, you're hitting at least two markets: kids and their parents."

Jeff Witt, produce director at Smith & Woods Foodcenters in Maryville, Tenn., recently implemented the "Planet Produce Kids Club" developed by supplier Try-Foods for the Produce for Better Health Foundation.

'I thought it was a real good idea," said Witt. "Not only is it healthy for the kids to be eating something other than candy, but it helps my sales."

However, the program, which includes a newsletter for all its members, has been a little slow to get off the ground, he said. "We've just gotten the second newsletter. It's hard to tell the real degree of success, since it varies by store," he said. Part of the problem with the club is that Witt has had to display the club materials in different areas in each of his dozen stores, he explained. "I have 12 stores, and each is different. In some, I display it by the customer service desk, in others it's the produce department," he said. Terry of Harps reported more success with the club. "The Planet Produce Kids Club is going outstandingly," he said. "We had one printed ad promotion inviting kids to sign up, and I believe we had a couple thousand responses." The club makes kids feel special, he said. It's also educational, since the newsletter contains facts about produce. "Anytime a child receives a letter in the mail addressed to them, or they know something their parents don't, they feel special. That's where the newsletter comes in," he said.

Now, with the help of Try-Foods, Harps is considering ways to extend the clubs' outreach further. For example they are developing a data base of Planet Produce members and mailing a birthday card to each child on the list.

Clemens Markets, Lansdale, Pa., has kids carving up watermelons for fun and prizes. Called "Clemmie's Kids Corner," the event was created for the summer months. The watermelon-carving contest was part of the activities last month, according to Jim Ott, a corporate merchandiser with the chain.

Prizes were awarded at each store for the most uniquely carved or decorated watermelon in two age groups. Those prizes included a year's supply of ice cream and a mountain bike, the circular said.

The kids were not required to get their watermelons from Clemens. However, several stores set up large watermelon displays to coincide with the contest. Some of the stores received up to 40 contest entries, but each store attracted a minimum of eight decorated watermelons, he said. Repeat business is the idea behind the contests, which extend beyond the produce department to include a recipe-tasting contest and a T-shirt decorating contest.

Winners of the year's supply of ice cream get 52 coupons, which entitles them to one-half gallon a week. "Hopefully, kids will bug Mom and Dad to come to Clemens, to participate in contests and get their ice cream," he said. And later this month, Clemens will feature a contest where kids create a character out of zucchini squash. The contests have gone so well that Clemens is considering a new set of contests for the fall months, Ott said. Like other retailers, Ott confirmed that a big incentive to such activities is that, if handled right, marketing to children also creates good will with consumers. "It's good community involvement," Ott said.