Eat Brighter! town hall panel sees big opportunityANAHEIM, Calif. — Industry enthusiasm for the Eat Brighter! initiative found another foothold at a standing room only Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit workshop.

Star power at the Oct. 17 event was provided by Sam Kass, executive director of first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative.

Kass said junk food has been taken out of schools, but marketing healthful food to kids is important if they are to make better choices. Sesame Street characters can help accomplish that with young kids, he said.

“What we are seeing is an incredible opportunity that is not going to come around again,” Kass said. “We want to do everything we can to help drive sales.”

Kass said while the public health community can tell consumers that broccoli is good for them and give them a pamphlet on its nutrition attributes, junk food marketers are selling happiness.

“Until we get in that game in a much more aggressive and forward-leaning way, and bring it to where (consumers) are, we are going to continue to lose,” he said.

Kass said the Eat Brighter! initiative, introduced at the White House about a year ago, could mark the beginning of a much more aggressive approach to marketing fruits and vegetables.

The panel included Derrick Jenkins, vice president of produce and floral for Wakefern Corp.; Robert Verloop, executive vice president of marketing for Naturipe Farms; and Donna Bogia, director of information and customer service for PMA.

The 30-minute panel presentation and a 45-minute question-and-answer period was moderated by Todd Putman, chief commercial officer of Bolthouse Farms, Bakersfield.

Putman said after the workshop that he was encouraged by the industry’s response to the Eat Brighter! program, which allows royalty-free use of Sesame Street characters on retail produce packages and on produce company websites through the end of 2016.

“I think the industry response so far has been nothing short of terrific,” Putman said. “It took us four or five months to get started, and in the last four or five months you have seen a tremendous amount of acceleration.”

Putman said there are about 30 participants so far, with nearly 100 licensed commodities and dozens of retailers representing tens of thousands of stores who said they will accept Sesame Street-branded produce.

“What important is that we are actually growing business,” he said. “If we get people to eat healthier, our business is healthier.”

Kass said the opportunity is tremendous both for the industry and the nation.

“We have the chance to drive the change to really drive consumption of fruits and vegetables, which as a nation we are under-consuming pretty dramatically and that should be good for everybody’s bottom line.”

Some at the workshop wondered what will happen after the program ends. Kass said that may be up to how much the industry backs the program now.

“If the industry takes the initiative wholly and really gives it everything we have, if there is a lot of uptake and we can drive consumption and health of the country, I think the sky is the limit as to what comes next — both in Eat Brighter! and but also a lot of other iterations.”

Verloop said Eat Brighter! was the “right message at the right time.” He said the promotion offers a new level of communication to the consumers that growers have not enjoyed before.

Jenkins said Eat Brighter! will be an important part of Wakefern’s merchandising toolkit.

“I see this as sustainable growth for our industry,” he said “We have great sales of produce today, but there is a particular part of our population that is disenfranchised in our inner city and food deserts and this is a way to bring them into the produce department.”

Jenkins said Eat Brighter! is not about item and price, but raising consumption.

Beside produce packaging branded with a choice of nine Sesame Street characters, Bogia said PMA is prepared to help marketers with ad guidelines, social media and all trade advertisements.

“Now is the time to join the movement,” she said. “We can help you increase consumption of produce.”

Eat Brighter! branded produce is now approved for distribution to schools, and there were questions about whether Sesame Street-branded produce is effective with older students.

Larry McIntosh, president and CEO of Peak of the Market, Winnipeg, Manitoba, said that Sesame Street-branded potatoes and onions sold much faster than anticipated.