They're back from vacation and summer camps -- and back to work and school. As consumers return to their normal family routines after a summer of barbecues and travel, retailers are welcoming them with a number of meal options in every fresh-foods department.Much of the activity is centered in produce, where the growth of value-added convenience items has helped boost department profits and visibility,

They're back from vacation and summer camps -- and back to work and school. As consumers return to their normal family routines after a summer of barbecues and travel, retailers are welcoming them with a number of meal options in every fresh-foods department.

Much of the activity is centered in produce, where the growth of value-added convenience items has helped boost department profits and visibility, according to retailers and industry experts interviewed by SN. It's a perfect showcase for snack packs and portable whole fruits and vegetables, since the produce department is often the first to greet customers as they walk in the door.

"You have to draw their attention as they come into the department, to get them thinking about good lunch-box snacks, that they're good for the kids and fit into the lunch bags they have today," said Mike Tipton, director of produce operations, K-VA-T, Abingdon, Va. "That includes anything from a smaller apple to the small bags of mini-carrots. It's more of an eye-appeal thing when they see a nice, attractive display with back-to-school signage, and they think, 'That would be good for my kids."'

Smart merchandising right inside the front door gets parents thinking about healthier lunch options for their children. Signage, ads and attractive displays are the main tools retailers are using in promoting produce to families.

"More and more, parents are health-conscious and trying to get their kids to eat more fruits and vegetables," Tipton added. "And the more that we, as retailers, can do to get information across to them will only help boost all the excitement we're seeing recently about the health benefits of produce."

Indeed, it seems in the past year, fresh fruits and vegetables have gained new momentum as a source of protection against a number of diseases, including cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Additionally, the new publicity surrounding obesity and children will likely have parents looking even more to healthier snack alternatives, retailers noted.

"The focus on nutrition on the part of parents has always been key," said Karen Burk, spokeswoman for Wal-Mart, Bentonville, Ark. "Kids are also becoming very educated consumers, opting for flavor first instead of simply appearance, as evidenced by their interest in items like Pluots, Gala apples, Braeburn apples and Fuji apples."

The retailer offers a variety of snack-pack options that include cut apples, celery or carrots, all with dip and packaged in a branded, overwrap tray. Also popular are more traditional, "out-of-hand" favorites such as baby carrots, grapes, small- to medium-sized apples, peaches, plums, nectarines and bananas.

"Pluots, white-flesh peaches and nectarines, and organically grown items also are very popular," Burk added. "We are seeing a popularity in the organic and ethnic selections available in our stores."

Edith Garrett, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based International Fresh-cut Produce Association, said that along with the usual carrot and celery sticks, a number of Hispanic supermarkets in Southern California and the Southwest have begun offering spears of jicama, a juicy, mild-flavored root vegetable that goes great with dips.

"There are some new commodities like jicama coming out that are really well-suited for snacking and children. I could see them gaining mainstream popularity because of their versatility," she said.

Still, more conventional items like bananas, grapes, apples and box raisins remain among the most popular whole items going into children's lunch boxes today. What retailers and the industry are aiming to do now is to increase the frequency of purchases -- and to get kids to actively request such products from their parents. To that end, the annual 5 A Day for Better Health campaign is ready this year with a new logo and prepared to go to market as more of a brand, according to Amy Bielicki, vice president of marketing for the Produce for Better Health Foundation, Newark, Del., which created the program 12 years ago.

"One of the new things retailers will see this year is graphics to incorporate into their ads, to [publicize] to their customers the variety of fresh fruits and vegetables they have," she told SN. "The foundation has also developed a lot of materials for children, which are great resources for retailers to incorporate into their back-to-school promotions for kids."

PBH's extensive catalog of materials includes a combination of materials like kids' activity sheets that retailers can use as handouts, or to sponsor a coloring contest. In addition to that, the organization has developed a full curriculum, primarily for the elementary school level.

"Children are primary consumers, future consumers and influence parents' purchases," she added. "They also consume about a serving less than adults [of produce]. So it's a great opportunity for retailers to boost sales by promoting greater consumption."

Presenting 5 A Day like a brand will allow the group to expand the impact of the program beyond a simple logo and message, to cover positioning, "personality" and trustworthiness, Bielicki said. Additionally, the expanded scope now covers not only fresh fruits and vegetables, but also the frozen, canned, dried and 100% juice categories.

"We are avid supporters of 5 A Day," said Burk of Wal-Mart. "We understand the importance of people of all ages in making healthy, nutritious food selections, and many of our Supercenters and Neighborhood Markets work with their local school districts to arrange tours for the children in their area to help them learn the importance of proper nutrition."

The retailer also uses sampling, product packaging, demos, TV advertising, videos and recipe cards to get the message to customers, she added.

K-VA-T's Tipton, who became director of produce for the chain a year ago, is looking to launch a comprehensive back-to-school program within the next year covering all stores, which primarily operate under the Food City banner.

"Right now, we have a companywide 'Apples for Students' program, where they save register receipts and the schools redeem them for computers and stuff like that," he told SN. "This year, we're looking to new programs that use fruits and vegetables as the base. It could be something like an eye-catching school-lunch display with smaller, 100-count apples, pears and peaches that makes customers interested in produce rather than cookies or candy as snacks."

It's already back-to-school time in much of the South, and Cecil Spurlock, director of produce for W. Lee Flowers Inc., Lake City, S.C., operators of 24 IGA stores in South Carolina and Georgia, said the transition from summer to fall is already well under way in his produce departments.

"We promote heavily within the department with 'Back to School' signage and 'Don't Forget the Kids' type of signs," he said. "We'll run it five or six weeks because schools are opening all during that period, so we'll keep it right in front of the customer all that time. We also use the 5 A Day signs."

Flowers' stores bolster their in-store programs by sponsoring store tours, where produce managers bring children right into the department to sample fresh produce and talk about healthy eating habits.

Right now, baby carrots were on ad, said Spurlock, which have become "the No. 1 mover in the entire carrot category, where before it was the one- or two-pound bags. Now, we're seeing baby carrots just dominate."

As soon as fall crops start coming it, Spurlock will be promoting apples and other good handheld whole fruit, particularly the smaller sizes.

"The five- and eight-pound bags are promoted because they're family-friendly," he said.

Tipton agreed that smaller pieces sell better.

"At back-to-school time, soft fruits are starting to wind down and we get into 100- or 125-count Gala apples, and then through winter, go into citrus with tangerines and tangelos," he said. "And there are advantages to offering bagged produce, since they usually are filled with the smaller-count fruit."

Still, fresh-cut and related convenience items aren't limited just to produce. Increasingly, fresh-cut processors are reaching out to sell their products to in-store delis and meals centers, according to IFPA's Garrett.

"There are more and more of these fresh-cut products making their way into the deli and prepared-food sections. And that's exciting for us because trying to sell such items in the produce section never has really gotten off the ground, but it seems to be getting a warmer reception in deli," she said. "Consumers are looking there for those types of convenience products already, so it's perfect to fit in fresh-cut produce."

Garrett noted that, as more and more consumers look for prepared foods, supermarkets have responded by developing and expanding their meals sections. In addition, full-size convenience platters are selling well, too. And that also fits in with the back-to-school theme, she said.

"Party trays are selling really very well, particularly during certain times of the year, like the holidays," she said. "Retailers I've spoken with say they're becoming a year-round product for them, and there's no reason why they can't be merchandised during back-to-school, with all the school events and sports going on in the fall."