November, 2005

Fruits of Thought

Parents First

Increasing produce consumption among children has become a priority in our industry. Leaders have begun to pursue marketing to children to better compete against snack foods and to win the loyalty of a new generation of consumers.

The rise of issues such as childhood obesity and the societal recognition that this is a major problem has also led non-produce companies — from packaged food companies to movie studios to fast food chains — to want to affiliate themselves with products that are perceived as part of the solution, not part of the problem.

The major produce trade associations are heavily involved in this issue as well. New PMA-sponsored research (see pages 10 and 11) is focused on understanding the consumer in the hope of helping the industry to develop desirable products and market more effectively. Also Tom Stenzel, the president of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, recently vented his frustration at the inability of the industry to move the needle on consumption during a speech in which he proposes a major focus on legislative and public policy initiatives that might help increase consumption.

Stenzel advocates expanding the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable School Snack Program, which provides free produce as a snack for schoolchildren, and expanding the role of produce in the Women, Infant and Children’s (WIC) Program for pre- and post-natal nutrition.

In all likelihood, these types of programs will affect some increase in consumption, although perhaps not as much as one would hope. More broadly, though, they seem to speak to a kind of inherent weakness in our product offering. What kind of industry is it where the only way we can increase consumption is to give the product away?

When it comes to changing childhood eating habits, there are cultural issues related to diet that can be researched and some areas that cry out for collective action by groups like the Produce for Better Health Foundation. For example, as a father, I’ve noticed a powerful cultural component that works to change dietary patterns in young children. When my children were infants, they ate and enjoyed a wide variety of foods they won’t touch now. Part of it is they become aware of alternatives. This is the “milk was delicious right up to the day the kids discovered chocolate milk” syndrome.

My wife and I never gave our oldest son a piece of candy or fried food. Then he started going to birthday parties and pre-school. The parents would put out dishes of M&M’s, lunch was fried chicken fingers; even in pre-school and day camp, the lunch program consists of chicken fingers, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, pizza and other such items.

There are obvious programs that can and should be launched. Virtually every restaurant chain has a children’s menu, and most of these menus are less than desirable nutritionally. Some type of logo that identifies an item on children’s menus, or even the entire menu, as nutritionally desirable would encourage foodservice establishments to offer healthier options to children. The key would be to promote the seal to parents and children and use this as marketing leverage to put pressure on foodservice establishments to offer meals eligible for the seal.

A parent, considering a camp or school for his child, has no easy way to evaluate the nutritional quality of the meals and snacks provided. These institutions compete vigorously for students, and part of this process is gaining accreditions and superior quality ranking. If an accrediting agency were available to certify that the meal programs these institutions offer are “healthy”, it would sway many parents and thus would lead many schools to adopt the programs.

A windfall of these initiatives is that it would help raise the issue of what parents’ responsibilities are when feeding their children and what the responsibilities of schools and other institutions are when acting in loco parentis.

Certainly, all those things will help. Yet and still, there may be harder truths here that the produce industry needs to confront. It may be that for many of our most compelling products from a nutritional stance, the flavor profile — and not just the flavor consistency — is the problem. And that means what is required is a conscious act of will to decide to eat a vegetable because it is healthy, even if a fried chicken finger really would taste better.

And the truth is that this type of conscious decision, if it is to be made at all, will have to be made not by immature children, incapable of deciding to defer gratification in this way, but by responsible adults imposing a mature decision-making process on the wild minds of youth.

When it comes to children and produce, what the produce industry most needs may not be hip marketing to kids, but rather, to get adults to be willing to impose decisions about nutrition on the young. That is counter to many trends in our culture and a difficult task. But the reason for eating one’s vegetables is, as everyone’s mom once told them: “It is good for you.”

The real marketing question is how to shift the focus from short-term pleasure-driven culture to a perspective more driven by long-term desires for fitness and good health. In this sense, marketing to children may, in fact, not be the wisest priority. Perhaps our marketing should be directed toward getting Mom, Dad and those institutions that serve as their proxies to enforce this discipline. The problem is that in the United States today, a lack of discipline and an unwillingness to defer gratification is not a problem confined to children.  pb