Bert and Ernie and Dora the Explorer are drawing children's attention in the produce aisle as industry groups seal licensing agreements and retailers jump on board.
Imagine showing Sesame Street's Oscar the Grouch hungrily eating a Granny Smith apple? Doesn't everybody know a message from these characters carries more weight than anything mom or dad could say?
Well, growers and industry groups, like manufacturers before them, have seized the opportunity.
“I hear kids saying, ‘Hey, there's Bert and Ernie,’ and bringing their moms over to our apple display,” said Mark Koll, produce manager at a Sioux Falls, S.D., unit of Hy-Vee, based in Des Moines, Iowa.
Hy-Vee, with 200-plus units, is one chain that has partnered with Stemilt, a Wenatchee, Wash., grower-shipper, to have the grower's licensed Sesame Street characters help sell apples.
Chainwide, Hy-Vee is currently promoting Granny Smiths as the Apple of the Month. April's Apple of the Month will be Braeburns.
“Apple sales seem to be very strong even though prices are strong, too,” Koll told SN. “I'd say retail prices are up 8% to 10%. Now, that's just a guess, but a pretty good one.”
The Apple of the Month is usually put on sale and also demoed on weekends. For the first two weeks of March, Granny Smiths were on sale for 99 cents a pound. The usual retail is $1.78 to $1.88.
Meanwhile, Stemilt supplies Hy-Vee chainwide with point-of-sale materials and tote bags featuring Sesame Street characters.
“It's a consistent program that generates new materials each month,” said Brian Vertrees, Stemilt's promotions manager. “Sometimes retailers will call and tell us they need more.” Elmo balloons have a way of getting loose from their moorings.
The colorful materials brighten up the department and get kids interested, Koll said.
At Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y., Dora the Explorer was the big attraction last year in a Produce for Kids promotion.
“She's a powerful character. We ran out of point-of-sale materials quickly,” said Maureen Murphy, the 116-unit chain's manager of consumer services and trends.
“That promotion was in conjunction with Produce for Kids, which raises money for Children's Miracle Network hospitals in the area, and that tugs at people's hearts.”
Murphy pointed out that the Produce for Kids/Children's Miracle Network usually launches its effort with supermarkets in June. “It's a feel-good event from a community standpoint, and it also does get kids eating more fruits and vegetables,” she said. “Whenever there's a chance to do something with kids, we jump at it.”
Like other industry sources SN talked to, Murphy said she sees more and more suppliers and retailers marketing fresh produce to youngsters.
“It's definitely a trend. Childhood obesity is on the rise, and now we hear that this generation of children may not outlive their parents. [With those issues in mind,] we're reaching out, and so are others, because we know the health benefits of eating fresh produce, and packaged produce, too.”
Murphy described tours Price Chopper has been conducting for years for schoolkids in grades 4 through 6. The company's corporate dietitian shepherds the groups.
“We have a scavenger hunt that starts out in the produce department. For example, our dietitian will send two students to grab a couple of red items from produce, and two other students to get a couple of purple items,” Murphy said, adding that children love this sort of thing.
The chain calls the tours “Healthy U.'s Supermarket Sleuth Nutrition Tours.”
The chain is keeping a focus on those tours and is planning some enhancements to them for next year, Murphy told SN.
School tours are important, agreed produce manager Chris Hummer at Day's Market in Park City, Utah.
“We take the kids in the back and show them how produce arrives at the store, and explain to them how an item gets from farm to trucks onto our shelves,” Hummer said.
Hummer said there are produce items guaranteed to rivet a kid's attention. Like a banana squash, for instance.
“Those grow to be eight to 10 pounds. Naturally, the boys want to see if they can lift it.”
Although Brussels sprouts may not be a kids' favorite, the children are captivated when shown how they grow on a stem.
Topping off schoolkids' tours with a tasting leaves a lasting impression, Hummer said.
“We always use Del Monte Gold pineapple as one of the tasting items. It's so sweet. They like that.”
Day's Market is a member of Associated Food Stores, Salt Lake City, Utah, which runs a kids' club with a focus on produce.
“More than 91 of our stores are enrolled in the program, and we have 40,000 kids in our database,” said Kathy Hawks, marketing specialist at Associated.
Meanwhile, industry trade groups and federal and state governments have ramped up their efforts to reach school-age children with a nutrition message.
Produce for Kids, Altamonte Springs, Fla., emphasizing its alliance with Children's Miracle Network, teams up each year with retailers across the country.
“Every spring, in May or June, we do a national campaign to raise funds [for Children's Miracle Network hospitals] and to educate children and their parents about the benefits of eating more fruits and veggies,” said Heidi McIntyre, Produce for Kids' marketing director.
Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., is a pioneer — it was one of the first chains to get involved with Produce for Kids — and they will participate in a June program again this year. “What's great about Publix is they get involved corporately. They've been with us from the start,” McIntyre said.
In partnership with several of its vendors, Publix participates twice a year in Produce for Kids programs, officials said. The chain makes use of colorful point-of-sale materials, recipes and posters in all its stores, and it orchestrates special events at selected locations to promote interaction with kids and their families.
“We involve local hospitals, who send dietitians and nurses to the stores to educate parents on healthy eating, and to promote programs within the communities,” Maria Brous, Publix spokeswoman, told SN. “It's truly a unique experience, and a way for the store to provide an additional service to our customers.”
McIntyre said that this year, the company will once again involve all of its Apron's Cooking Schools, where kids will learn to make fruit smoothies and prepare healthy snacks.
A tall, colorful floor stand, provided by Produce for Kids, attracts kids' attention. It calls out a health message and includes kid-friendly recipes. PBS kids characters have played a role in a whole series of events with retailers across the country.
Meijer is a major participant, McIntyre said. Last year, the chain orchestrated a series of “park parties” in partnership with Produce for Kids.
In addition to Price Chopper, Publix and Meijer, other retailers participating each year in the Produce for Kids programs include Acme; Giant Food Stores of Carlisle, Pa.; Harris Teeter; King Soopers; and Kroger Southwest.
The programs are funded by sponsors including Del Monte, Dole, Sunkist, Fresh Express, Shuman Produce, Driscoll's, Apio Inc., Stemilt Growers, Country Fresh and Tropicana.
The way the program works is what makes it such a positive tie-in to the community surrounding a retailer's location. Each sponsor that participates decides on a per-unit donation — a certain amount for each of their items sold — that will be given to a nonprofit organization such as Children's Miracle Network hospitals and PBS Kids for educational programming.
GETTING THE WORD OUT
Retailers alert their customers about how the program works via brochures, and they call attention to the campaign with point-of-sale materials provided by Produce for Kids and in their ad circulars.
Meanwhile, Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., is ramping up the educational “Crunch the Numbers” program it launched last year in conjunction with Scholastic. PMA has bolstered its efforts this spring, looking to get more retailers involved.
Designed by Scholastic, the Crunch the Numbers program, which meets national standards for third- and fourth-grade math curriculums, aims to get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables, in addition to improving their math skills.
For example, lesson plans include scenarios that use fruits and vegetables in a grocery store setting to illustrate an addition, subtraction or fractions problem and its solution.
In addition to lessons and posters, the program offers take-home family handouts that offer suggestions to parents on how to get more fruits and vegetables into their children's diets.
By this January, PMA had responses back from teachers who received Crunch the Numbers curriculum packets last fall, and the news is good, PMA's public relations director, Julia Stewart, told SN last week. Out of 10,000 teachers who received the packets, 93% said they are already using the curriculum or are planning to do so.
Now PMA has offered the packet to all its members, encouraging them to approach their area schools and retailers with the idea and the tools with which to participate.
“We also now offer an online tool kit to help our members take it to their communities, to get kids out of the classroom and into supermarkets,” Stewart said.
PMA is providing financial contributions over a four-year period to enable Produce for Better Health Foundation's Campaign for Children's Health to create and distribute the program.
PBH has also launched a new website, foodchamps.org , designed with children ages 2 through 8 in mind.
Grower/shippers, the big brands and others are beefing up their own websites with interactive games and activities aimed at youngsters.
Del Monte Fresh Produce just recently unveiled www.fruits.com . “On the site, we included a section exclusively dedicated to kids with games, outdoor activity recommendations, kids' recipes and suggestions on how to get children to eat more fruits and vegetables,” said Dionysios Christou, vice president, marketing, at Del Monte Fresh Produce.
The latest of the company's kid-friendly promotions involved a special partnership with Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment for the launch of Walt Disney's “The Jungle Book” anniversary DVD.
Dole Food Co. is using stickers on its bananas to drive kids to its website, where they can get a free coloring book and participate in activities.
Licensing agreements to use Disney and Sesame Street characters are gaining traction among suppliers, and thus with retailers. In addition to the more well-known brands, those that have made licensing agreements with Disney include Church Brothers, and California Giant, Watsonville, Ca., is using Sesame Street characters to help promote its blueberries and strawberries.