School’s in

With kids back in the classroom moms have to work extra hard to make sure they are eating healthy snacks— retailers can help.

By Elizabeth Louise Hatt

The school cafeteria. It is not only a place for kids to socialize and build friendships; it is a bustling marketplace of sandwich and snack trade agreements. An early lesson in supply and demand, kids know that an apple can win a bag of fruit chews or bowl of fresh strawberries can be good for a pack of M&M’s, all trades guaranteed with a pinky-swear.

Kids will soon be heading back to school and that means parents have to work twice as hard to keep them eating healthy when they are out of the house. Fortunately, manufacturers are introducing more and more lunchbox-size healthy snacks, designed to look like candy and covered in images of kids’ favorite cartoon characters that they don’t want to trade. Retailers would be wise to ensure their shelves are stocked with the latest fruit and veggie snack packs.

“Getting kids excited about eating healthy is ultimately the challenge,” says Tristan Kieva, director of marketing for Irwindale, Calif.-based Ready Pac Foods. “It is about delivering a snack that kids will not only enjoy and that tastes good, but is healthy for them. For retailers, it is about finding the right mix and setting the stage for their shoppers who are looking to offer their children a snack in a new and exciting way.”

When it comes to setting the stage, more and more retailers are creating snack sections in the produce department. Industry observers say that consumers shopping that aisle are more health minded. “Retailers have a big advantage in seizing the opportunity to position convenience, healthy and unique options for kids within departments,” adds Kieva. “By merchandising healthy snacking items together it helps make it easier on moms who are not only thinking of meal preparation but the snacking occasion as well.”

For dried fruit producer Sunsweet Growers, being in the produce aisle is a huge benefit. “Two-thirds of the time we are in the baking aisle, but the other third of the time that we are in or close to the produce aisle the velocity is much stronger, in the 15% to 20% range,” says Jeff McLemore, Sunsweet’s product manager for dried fruit.

Sunsweet Growers, based in Yuba City, Calif., recently introduced Sunsweet Ones, a bag of individually wrapped plums aimed at younger snackers. “The packaging looks more or less like a candy package. We definitely see a younger demographic gravitating towards this style,” says McLemore. “The major benefit of dried fruit is that it is basically fresh all year versus having seasonality. Mom may not be able to get all the produce she needs in all areas of the country but dried fruit has a shelf life of 12 to 18 months so she can always have a piece of fruit.”

The popularity of the Sunsweet Ones’ design inspired the company to embark on a rebranding effort with a full line of redesigned packaging that calls out the nutritional value of the fruit. “We use real nice photography on the front of the package and we call out the key nutritional attributes, such as good source of fiber, antioxidants or Vitamin A, C and E,” adds McLemore. “It’s important to educate people on why this product is good for them. It should be attractive on the shelf but once they pick it up and read the benefits, that’s what makes the difference.”

Sun-Maid Growers offers portion-controlled packaging and single-serve boxes of raisins and dried fruit, which Joe Tamble, vice president of sales, says is ideal for school snacks. “Compared to other snacking options, Sun-Maid products provide parents with the ideal snacks for their kids because they provide the hard-to-find combination of nutrition, great taste and outstanding value,” says Tamble. “We partner with retailers year-round to promote consumption through feature ads and displays to encourage impulse purchases.”

The Kingsburg, Calif.-based grower recently targeted kids via a tie-in with the theatrical release of Kung Fu Panda 2, offering a grand prize trip to Zoo Atlanta.

This followed a number of other tie-in promotions with kids DVD releases, such as Pinocchio and Shrek, and placement on children’s programming on the ABC Family and Nickelodeon networks. “We want to make it easy for kids to identify with the Sun-Maid brand,” says Tamble.

That’s no easy task. Retailers and manufacturers know that just because something flew off the shelves last year that does not mean it will be cool this year, so staying on top of the trends is key.

In order to be sure they are offering kids’ favorites, manufacturers and retailers are tapping into the ever-growing mommy-blogosphere. Blogging communities as well as social media networks allow retailers to not only hear what parents are saying but initiate discussion. “Word of mouth is such a powerful medium,” says Kieva. “The mommy-blogger community has become very strong in its focus on directing issues and concerns on their children’s behalf, and the health snacking category is one in which this community has been very focused.”

To debut this fall, Produce for Kids (PFK) is creating Parents on Produce, a board of “online influencers” in the parenting community to tap into for information. The board will consist of five members each serving as an expert in their field, such as psychology, education, nutrition or even just balancing a busy life, says Amanda Keefer, marketing manager for Reidsville, Ga.-based PFK. “Its role is to keep PFK current on what parents need as healthy eating resources and to help deliver the PFK message to other parents who already trust in them.” The board members will also write articles for PFK and get involved in future events.

The inspiration for Parents on Produce came from the success of working with mommy-bloggers during PFK’s “Get Healthy Give Hope” spring campaign to raise money for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. “According to eMarketer, 18.3 million internet users who are moms read blogs at least once a month,” says Keefer. “Parents are often getting their information from local parenting blogs so targeting these blogs in our retailers’ markets was a great way to make consumers aware of the campaign and get them out to the stores to raise money by purchasing sponsored products.”

Bil Goldfield, Dole Fresh Fruit communications manager, agrees. “We’re increasingly using the blogger universe to distribute more detailed fruit-focused health and nutrition messaging to parents and consumers,” he says. Dole Fresh Fruit, based in Westlake Village, Calif., is meeting with close to 100 top local food and mommy-bloggers during this summer’s “Go Bananas After Dark” tour in a series of dinners. “Collectively these bloggers reach millions of parents and other passionate consumers—and their enthusiastic posts, videos and other content is leveraged through Facebook and Twitter programs. Some have even taken it upon themselves to develop Dole Bananas giveaway promotions on their own,” Goldfield adds.

Crunch Pak is also putting its products in the hands of bloggers. In an effort to reach consumers directly, the Cashmere, Wash.-based company recently embarked on a campaign to get information out to bloggers who focus on food and healthy eating for kids. “We want to talk directly to our consumers and blogging is the most effective way to share our products directly to the people who are most interested in buying them. Its today’s instant response system,” says Tony Freytag, director of sales and marketing for Crunch Pak. “We are hoping to establish ongoing relationships with our target market. We foresee having them test products for Crunch Pak, provide input on flavors and packaging and even provide insight into their local markets.”

Bloggers are responding. “We sent a letter to 100 bloggers and have been inundated with requests for more information, samples and photos. We are very excited,” adds Freytag. 

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