Giving back is the new black

Retailers are finding that community outreach and charitable support does more than just make them feel warm and fuzzy inside. It is growing sales.

‘Tis the season for giving back.

As people surface from winter hibernation and head outdoors, they often bring with them a renewed sense of energy to make their community a better place. Spring is also the time of year that consumers see local produce hit the supermarket shelves, so it is no wonder retailers and farmers are at the heart of it all.

Through corporate sponsorships, in-store fundraising programs and tie-ins with charity organizations, the produce industry is not only setting an example of social responsibility, it is selling more product.

“I think most people are charitable at heart,” says John Shuman, founder of Produce for Kids and president of Shuman Produce, based in Reidsville, Ga. “And research has shown that consumers view brands associated with charitable programs as more favorable, so it has an influence on consumers purchasing decisions in the supermarket.”

Cause marketing has become popular in recent times as consumers are dedicating more time and funds to supporting their local city or region. Retailers who cultivate a connection to the communities in which they operate will attract a loyal consumer base. As industry observers say, customers want to shop in a store they are proud of.

Tracey Altman, vice president of marketing at Fresherized Foods, the maker of Wholly Guacamole, agrees that everyone wants to give back. “There are three types of consumers when it comes to giving. There are those who kind of know someone who has been affected by a disease or condition and want to support an organization in honor of them. Then there are people who know someone close affected; and lastly, there are consumers who have been affected by it themselves.”

Fresherized Foods, based in Saginaw, Texas, picks five charities to support in the region and receives 20 to 50 requests a month for donations from local schools and clubs. One of their biggest contributions is product. “We give away a lot of product to raffle off,” says Altman. “It’s a good way to touch the community and creates a sampling opportunity that can lead to a long-term consumer.”

Giving is not only for manufacturers. Retailers cannot afford to stand to the side with community outreach, especially if they want to compete in today’s economy. Observers say that by giving back, retailers are adding value to its brand and the products on its shelves.
Many produce growers are experts at connecting with their communities and are ready to tie-in with retailers. Here are some of the projects they have embarked on.

Kids come first
Produce for Kids (PFK) has been promoting fresh product brands while raising money for the Children’s Miracle Network and other children’s charities for 10 years. The campaigns, which take place over the course of four to six weeks, twice a year, have become a staple for consumers looking for healthy meal ideas and want to feel good about their purchases.

According to PFK’s Shuman, the campaign exploded among retailers in its second year. “We only had a retailer or two sponsor the program in the first year. But when word got out that it was a great way for retailers to support their corporate community outreach initiatives, sponsors were seeing sales increase and the children’s charities were benefiting, it took off quickly. We had no idea that it would pioneer the produce industry’s eagerness to support outreach.”

Although PFK reaches stores nationwide, PFK individualizes its campaigns to each retailer involved and all the money raised goes straight back to that store’s community. “When I can tell a retailer how much money they raised for a local hospital, they get so excited,” says Kim Avola, vice president for PFK, based in Orlando, Fla. “The fact that we have repeat retailers who have participated in both the spring and fall campaigns since we started in 2002—that speaks to itself.” PFK will be adding new elements to its 2012 campaigns to celebrate its 10th birthday.

Spreading the health
Retailers can bring their business local glory by jumping on board with a campaign that has already achieved national attention such as Fuel Up and Play 60 (FUP60). The partnership between the National Football League, the Dairy Council and Chelan Fresh promotes healthy eating and 60 minutes of exercise a day in schools nationwide. The campaign reached more than seven million kids last year. The in-store element of the campaign piloted this past football season to encourage parents to make healthy shopping choices in conjunction with what kids are learning.

Rosauers Supermarkets in Washington state tested the campaign with an in-store event. It promoted the sponsors products, shared nutrition information and featured the Sea Gals, the Seattle Seahawks cheerleading squad. “We are looking forward to getting more retailers and communities involved when we launch nationwide this fall,” says Terry Chelan, director of marketing for Chelan, Wash.-based Chelan Fresh.

From coast to coast
Social media may be the talk of the town, but visiting grocery stores across the country in a giant truck is a pretty dedicated approach to spreading goodwill. That is what the Idaho Potato Commission (IPC) is doing to celebrate its 75th anniversary and spread the message about Meals on Wheels.

The Eagle, Idaho-based commodity board has been a long-time supporter of the organization that supports local senior nutrition programs. To encourage people to donate to Meals on Wheels, the IPC will be road-tripping across the country visiting retailers in the Great Big Idaho Potato Truck decorated with the Meals on Wheels logo—in addition to making its own donation. “It’s spreading the message in multiple ways,” says Seth Pemsler, vice president retail/international for the IPC. “From a financial standpoint we are donating $100k. From a communications standpoint, we are helping to spread the word about an important cause.”

The IPC also contributes to UNICEF, donates potatoes to the Ronald McDonald House and sponsors the Idaho Potato Bowl bringing millions into the community.

Feeding the hungry
“The biggest thing we do, and what we do best, is feed people,” says Mike Aiton, director of marketing at Prime Time Produce, based in Coachella, Calif. The produce grower capitalizes on its specialty, growing and delivering produce, to two food bank organizations in its home region of the Coachella Valley, FIND (Food In Need of Distribution) Food Bank and Hidden Harvest.

For years Prime Time has maintained the trucks at FIND, an organization that collects and delivers food to nearly 80,000 people each month at their homes and food banks. Meanwhile, working with Hidden Harvest, Aiton says that they do something a little different. The organization’s goal is to make sure no produce grows to waste, therefore the organization cleans Prime Time’s fields after harvest and distributes the leftover product. “Its edible product,” he says. “It just did not make the cut for retail.”

Prime Time’s active role in the Coachella area, which also includes supporting eight local charities, such as the YMCA and local schools, earned the grower the title of Philanthropic Company of the Year in 2009 for National Philanthropy Day by the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP).

“We don’t give back to the community for the recognition,” says Aiton. “We do it just because it’s the right thing to do.”

Playing fair
Simcha Weinstein, director of marketing at Albert’s Organics, compares the company’s community outreach strategy to that of its produce business: “If our farmers are to reap the benefit of their crops, they must first give to the land, give to the soil and give to their crops,” he says. “The same is true for Albert’s and our relationship with our communities. Like the farmers, we must constantly nourish, develop and give back to the communities that support us.”

In addition to contributing to charities in the areas that its seven distribution centers are located, for the past six years Albert’s Organics, based in Bridgeport, N.J., has looked beyond its local—and national—boundaries by partnering with the Fair Trade movement. The program helps small farmers gain access to international markets and build infrastructure, such as health care, organic gardening, education, safety programs and protective equipment, among other things.

“The Fair Trade model provides an opportunity for shoppers local to our divisions’ communities to make charitable contributions when they buy a Fair Trade product. It is like an indirect charity,” says Weinstein.

Industry observers believe that all customers want to feel good about helping others in need, and that includes the environment. Eco-friendly shoppers are likely to become loyal to retailers and companies that go above and beyond to protect the environment.

Classic Salads offers only organic products and its users are strong advocates of environmental sustainability. To reassure their users of the company’s dedication, the packaging includes the recycle symbol. “We use thinner plastic that is recyclable and promote that our trays are made from 70–80% PET recycled materials,” says John Burge, vice president of sales and marketing at Watsonville, Calif.-based Classic Salads. “To the right consumer, it’s a really big deal.”

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