WASHINGTON -- The ninth annual National 5 A Day Week -- timed to coincide with the nation's return to school and work -- launched celebrations yesterday and runs all this week, with more retailers and vendors than ever finding ways to participate.This year's theme is "5 A Day: Yes You Can!" in reference to American consumers who still feel it's not possible to eat five servings of fresh fruits and

WASHINGTON -- The ninth annual National 5 A Day Week -- timed to coincide with the nation's return to school and work -- launched celebrations yesterday and runs all this week, with more retailers and vendors than ever finding ways to participate.

This year's theme is "5 A Day: Yes You Can!" in reference to American consumers who still feel it's not possible to eat five servings of fresh fruits and vegetables every day due to their hectic lifestyles. Promotional elements are geared towards specifically helping them overcome that reluctance, said officials with the Produce for Better Health Foundation, Wilmington, Del., and the National Cancer Institute.

Among those retailers taking full advantage of the public- and private-funded resources, Bi-Lo, Mauldin, S.C., is running a stepped-up 5 A Day initiative developed by Dole Food Co. and is reaching into the community in a from-the-top-down effort that's giving it unprecedented exposure.

Maximizing the chain's image in the community -- as well as fostering good nutrition, attracting new shoppers, and increasing produce sales -- is a top goal, officials said.

"We've been very pleased with the response we've gotten from the schools and from the local media. We've had a lot of stories in the newspapers," said Donna Waldrep, public affairs and marketing manager for the chain, which has 295 stores in the South.

Bobby Banana and Lucy Lettuce, costumed characters created by Dole, have a role as they have in the past, and store tours are still the core of the program. Indeed, there will be more of them and new attention is being paid to 5 A Day right down to the details. For example, new banners that say, "Dole's 5 A Day Tours Exclusively at Bi-Lo," were ordered for every store, letters were sent out in early August to schools in all of Bi-Lo's market areas and the local media has been invited as each tour is scheduled.

Not only that, but Bi-Lo has partnered with additional state and local agencies and community organizations to raise awareness of 5 A Day and the elements of good nutrition.

"This has been a huge commitment for us. We wouldn't have had the time or the resources to make such an organized and thorough effort without Dole's help. We might have done some store tours, but not the rest," Waldrep said.

Participating in Dole's Teacher of the Year award ceremony this spring was just one part of the endeavor that Bi-Lo has embarked on with Dole [see "Retailers Find 5 A Day Partner in Teachers' Awards," SN, 05/14/01].

"We've expanded into new markets and have connected up with more community and state organizations. And we're ready for the school year. We had banners last year, but we changed the color of the background and the graphics this year. It's important that they look fresh, and have a new look. We're asking stores to hang them outside if local zoning permits, or in their lobby," Waldrep said.

Opportunities to participate in state and local events are sought and contacts are initiated by Dole on Bi-Lo's behalf. One such link-up this year is with the Clemson University Exchange Program for a Dole 5 A Day Knowledge Bowl quiz set for October at the South Carolina State Fair. Finalists from regional competitions in elementary, middle and high schools from across the state will be pitted against each other. The event spotlighting students' knowledge about fruits and vegetables is sure to get media attention, Waldrep said.

Bi-Lo and Dole representatives are also making sure 5 A Day flyers are available at community events such as health fairs and harvest festivals. As a result, Bi-Lo's 5 A Day message has been expanded beyond the schools.

"We had a retirement home call us to see if they could arrange a 5 A Day store tour and we said sure. It doesn't have to be school kids. This is about good nutrition for everybody," Waldrep said.

Creating an annualized 5 A Day program acts as a sort of checks-and-balances system that ensures everything gets done. For example, as school season approaches, the chain's corporate office send letters to elementary schools to invite them to call their local Bi-Lo stores to schedule 5 A Day tours. That puts each store on notice that they'd better be ready when the calls start coming in.

"Each store manager is asked to choose a 5 A Day coordinator who will handle the calls and the tours. The coordinator doesn't necessarily have to be the produce manager. He or she could be anyone who has an outgoing personality, who would be good at explaining things to children," said Waldrep.

Then incentives are announced. For instance, last year, the 5 A Day coordinator who arranged the most store tours received a Bi-Lo gift certificate. This year, Waldrep hopes to up the ante.

"I'd like to give them a weekend getaway for two or for four. We're working with vendors right now on that," she said.

It's top-level management support that keeps the program going through turnover at store level, Waldrep said. She pointed out that Mike Marrotte, vice president of produce at Bi-Lo before he was promoted to vice president of grocery at Ahold USA, got Bi-Lo going last year.

"I realized that nobody in our marketplace was taking advantage of the 5 A Day initiative and I had a good relationship with the folks at Dole. Lorelei DiSogra [Dole's vice president, nutrition and health] told me about a strategic planning session Dole could set up and I thought it would be a good way to get started," Marrotte told SN.

"I prepped for the meeting by putting together a mission and vision statement for us built around 5 A Day. At the the meeting, I laid it out on the table for all the resources, local and national, that Dole was able to bring to the meeting. It helped us put together an action plan," Marrotte said.

The Department of Health in North Carolina, 5 A Day state coordinators and the American Heart Association had representatives there.

"From Bi-Lo, we had category managers and operational support and our public affairs as well as our produce marketing people. Then, [Bi-Lo and Dole] did training at each of our stores," Marrotte said.

"It was an undisputed success. It's difficult to directly relate new customers or sales to it. You hope it will increase your sales over the long run and produce sales were healthy, but there are so many benefits. We generated a tremendous amount of media attention and that strengthens Bi-Lo's relationships with the communities it serves. A lot of hometown newspapers came to our tours."

Marrotte, like Waldrep, said Dole made it happen.

"Having the manpower to carry out a program or putting in additional people to do it is very important to us, but we retailers all have limited resources. But Lorelei brought in a team of folks from state and national agencies that gave us the time and people to help execute the programs. And, of course, Dole helped us with the training. They made much of it turnkey for us," he said.

Dole works collaboratively with the Produce for Better Health Foundation and state 5 A Day coordinators to develop nutrition marketing programs for retailers, and they recommend strategic planning as a first step.

During that process, Dole's nutrition marketing experts help senior corporate managers clarify their vision and goals and identify necessary international and external resources. The resulting action plan includes tactics to achieve their goals, Dole's DiSogra said.

"Our role is to work with retailers to implement programs that help them reach their business objectives while also moving consumers closer to eating five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day."

To aid in that, Dole is currently developing an interactive module designed to help train retail staff who cannot attend its regional training workshops or for use as a refresher course. The company also offers a whole range of 5 A Day educational materials, including cassette tapes and CD-ROMs, for elementary school students.

"One of the most effective ways to make an impact is to reach kids. They are three markets in one -- a primary market, an influence market and a future market," DiSogra said.