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May/June 2007 California Country magazine

Finding ways to promote healthy eating to children.




It was your typical grocery trip…sort of. Carts were rolling and food was flying off the shelves, but the shoppers were, in a word, different. They were children.

In a not-at-all-scientific experiment, California Country gathered six children ages 2 through 9 and let them loose in the grocery store. They could pick out whatever they wanted, but in the end each child could select only one item from their loot. The results: Go-gurt (kid-style yogurt), donuts, cookies, boysenberries and a peach topped the list.

Such an adventure highlights how kids eat and shop. But California Country reporters aren't the only ones eager for that information. Plenty of produce marketers are creating and promoting products that they hope will attract the younger set.

Numbers may be the crux of this burgeoning trend. Statistics show an acute need to alter children's eating habits. The number of overweight or obese children has jumped by 300 percent in the last 30 years, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Many children--45 percent of 6- to 11-year-olds and half of all teens--eat no fruit on a given day, and for the first time ever it looks like our youths' life expectancy may be lower than our own.

That's the health side of it. Numbers lead the marketing side, too.

"Kids are exposed to 20,000 food advertisements a year, and that's mostly for sugar cereals and high-calorie snacks," said Elaine Magee, registered dietitian in Danville and author of more than 25 books on food and nutrition.

Children don't control their parents' purse strings, but they certainly impact it. A survey by Marketresearch.com shows that 71 percent of mothers purchase items at the request of their little ones.

Put all these facts and figures together, and it's clear there's a growing market for promoting healthy eats to children--and it looks like California agriculture is leading the way.

Over in Oxnard, SpongeBob SquarePants is climbing the conveyer belt at Boskovich Farms. Having the bright-yellow cartoon character grace a glossy bag of spinach is a union between the family-owned business, which produces more than 30 vegetable crops, and the television network Nickelodeon.

Don Hobson, Boskovich's vice president of sales and marketing, says the concept blossomed out of his own life.

"I'd come home from work and I'd see the kids--we have two boys, 4 and 7--watching SpongeBob, and we were looking for an idea to get kids to eat more vegetables, and I thought, let's put SpongeBob on a bag of spinach and see how he does," Hobson explained.

What do the parents of the California Country shopping gang think of the concept?

"If I could show them that spinach is actually coming out of a SpongeBob container and say we're having a SpongeBob salad, I think they would definitely be open to that," said mother of three Victoria Schuberg of Westlake Village.

Sister-in-law Amy Schuberg of Camarillo has more of a challenge, saying, "It's hard. With my older kids I can rationalize and explain. But if my little one sees green, he sees a vegetable and he throws a fit!"

She could try orange. SpongeBob is also hawking carrots. He's on bags of Grimmway Farms carrots. Grimmway, in the southern San Joaquin Valley, is the largest producer, grower and shipper of carrots in the world.

Along with SpongeBob, five other Nickelodeon characters--from Dora the Explorer to the Backyardigans--started appearing on stickers and packaging for various fruits this spring.

"The power of the characters means a lot to kids, and you have to have the attraction at the point of sale," said Pat Steider, president of Summeripe Worldwide in Dinuba. Summeripe, an alliance of California tree fruit growers that sells ready-to-eat peaches, plums and nectarines, recently secured licensing for the characters.

"Characters like SpongeBob and Dora are considered icons around the globe. They have also been some of the highest-ranking shows on kids' television over the year," said Jean Margaret Smith, Nickelodeon's senior vice president of public affairs. "This is why we began to seek out new partnerships like Summeripe, among others, and to put our characters on fruit or vegetables, in order to encourage kids to make healthy food choices."

Summeripe is taking things a step further by promoting kid-sized fruit. In a move that Steider describes as "making the fruit aisle more kid-friendly," the company hopes to use smaller fruits that are traditionally too small to be sold, as perfect for the younger set. They will be marketed whole or sliced, incorporating the cartoon characters on their packaging or sticker labels.

"This is good for the grower, the kids and the customer," Steider explained.

With Mickey Mouse being one of the most famous faces in the world (98 percent of 3- to 11-year-olds know him), it makes sense that Disney is getting in on the action.

"Disney is recognized for its strong heritage in storytelling. This concept is applied to marketing and in-store merchandising," said Harry Dolman, an executive vice president for Disney Consumer Products. "Kids who have a strong connection with the characters will consider having that apple if a character they love is on the package or is promoting it."

Mickey is on packages of whole green and red apples, and more recent additions to the Disney character family--The Incredibles--are on packages of sliced apples. Disney has also developed "Dippers," products where apples with caramel dip and carrots with ranch dressing are in kid-friendly portions and packaged with Mickey or his modern friends including Lilo, Stitch and Kim Possible.

Parents such as Angie Salquist of Lafayette, who has two boys ages 8 and 11, sees the characters as helping attract her children's attention and, she hopes, their taste buds.

"When they were little, anything that had a favorite hero, they would have wanted to eat," she said. "As they get older, they realize that certain foods make them feel better."

California agriculture is a key part of this process. Disney, by way of their fresh produce licensee Imagination Farms, works with 15 different producers, some from California.

Disneyland, itself a California institution, is changing the way it's selling food. The theme park plans to eliminate trans fats (often called the baddest of the bad fats) from food served at its parks by the end of this year and from its licensed foods by 2008. They now offer side dishes of carrots or apples instead of fries and 100-percent fruit juice instead of soda.

Dole Foods, which is headquartered in Westlake Village, spends no money on direct advertising to children but a lot on education. The company has more than 150 fruit and vegetable products--many grown in California--and is currently testing a way to get these healthy foods straight to the student, said Marty Ordman, Dole's vice president of marketing and communications. In a small pilot in Fountain Valley, Dole is providing salad bar set-ups and makings to 25 schools.

"The thought is we want to get kids exposed to fruits and vegetables in a positive way," said Ordman. It's a goal that seems easier than ever these days, especially when familiar faces are involved.

"We know that putting our characters on healthy fruits and vegetables has helped increase sales for some of our partners by 30 percent," said Nickelodeon's Smith.

California Country's shopping experiment bears this out. When a bag of the cartoon character spinach was flashed in front of the kids at the end of the trip, they responded--loudly and in unison--"SpongeBob!"

This is obviously a marketing trend that's capturing the kids.

Jennifer Harrison is a reporter for the popular weekly television program "California Country." She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or j.harrison@comcast.net.


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