(Aug. 9) Your professional world doesn’t hinge on the fact that it’s August and children are getting ready to go back to school. But it’s a big deal for many of your shoppers who are out buying back-to-school clothes for their kids and dealing with the problem of finding clothes that fit.

Many parents — and their children — are painfully aware of the challenges of childhood obesity. About 15% of those ages 6-19 are overweight, according to the 1999-2000 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. That’s triple the number since the early 1970s.

It’s not just a weight and self-esteem issue. It also is a public health issue, and several government agencies are busy determining how to fight the epidemic.

For one, Congress has proposed legislation to set up nutrition standards for food sold in school cafeterias that aren’t part of the school meal program. The American Academy of Pediatrics names fighting childhood obesity its No. 1 priority.

Consider the ways you can be part of the solution.

1. SPEARHEAD KID-FRIENDLY EVENTS.

The produce department is the best place to host nutrition-focused fun.

“We have the right product. It’s almost a no-brainer,” says Ed Tommack, vice president of produce merchandising and procurement for Albertsons Inc., Boise, Idaho, with 2,500 stores. The chain’s second annual four-week “The Wacky Days of Summer” kid’s promotion to help fight obesity was to finish Aug. 3.

Albertson’s partnered with the Cartoon Network’s Boomerang channel in the promotion, which included appearances by such costumed characters as Scooby-Doo, Fred Flintstone, Yogi Bear and Huckleberry Hound in select stores for 10 main events.

“You have to put some pizazz around it. Just to show a fruit and tell (kids) it’s good for them doesn’t have near the effect as Yogi Bear coming in and telling them,” Tommack says.

The weekend events surrounding the character appearances included watermelon eating contests, pineapple decorating, photo opportunities, family games, produce sampling and live radio broadcasts.

Though only a few Albertson’s supermarkets hosted the big events, each of the participating 1,600 stores displayed colorful balloons and “The Wacky Days of Summer” posters and pennants. They also gave out 20-page recipe and activity booklets that featured the cartoon characters.

The goal of the promotion was to encourage healthy snacking and change children’s snacking choices. A dozen sponsoring produce shippers and commodity boards helped finance the promotion and made sure their items were highlighted. Participating stores set up a secondary display featuring the sponsors’ products: avocados, grapes, pineapples, salads, baby carrots, mushrooms, watermelon, kiwifruit, grape tomatoes and stone fruit.

Albertson’s worked with consumer marketing company Consumer Effects Inc., Sacramento, Calif., to develop the promotion. It also partnered with KidsHealth.org, a Web site devoted to children’s health, and sold the organization’s book “Fit Kids: A Practical Guide to Raising Healthy and Active Children — From Birth to Teens” in produce departments during the promotion.

Ukrop’s Super Markets Inc., Richmond, Va., with 28 stores, focuses on healthy snacking in its monthly one-hour Kids’ Cuisine classes, which require parents to accompany children. “We’re trying to teach parents and children good nutrition habits and that healthy snacks don’t have to be difficult, expensive or taste bad,” says Julie Bishop, Ukrop’s manager of wellness.
The teacher introduces children to different fruits and vegetables, gives them a chance to make and eat healthful snacks and sends them home with a booklet developed by Ukrop’s about produce.

2. DOVETAIL WITH OTHERS IN THE PRODUCE INDUSTRY.

Some shippers, commodity groups and associations already have developed kid-friendly promotions you can tie into.

At the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit International Convention and Exposition in Anaheim, Calif., in October, the Produce for Better Health Foundation, Wilmington, Del., plans to give details of a partnership it is developing with “Sesame Street.”

“Sesame Street” recently announced a new Healthy Habits for Life initiative to use its brand recognition and retail power to influence preschoolers and their parents to live healthier lives.

PBH plans to work with “Sesame Street” to educate and motivate children to eat a colorful variety of fruits and vegetables and to include a retail tie-in with the partnership, says Lori Baer, director of public relations and production. PBH and Dole Food Co. Inc., Westlake Village, Calif., are entering the third year of their partnership with Binney & Smith Inc., Easton, Pa., the maker of Crayola crayons, in the joint “There’s a Rainbow on My Plate” program.

Janet Tenney, manager of nutrition programs for Giant Food LLC, Landover, Md., says the chain’s 200 stores have participated in the Dole and Crayola program for the past two years.

The program features a colorful display unit with 80 packs of crayons and 80 coloring books and initially was designed to be a one- to three-week March program to tie in with National Nutrition Month, says Amy Myrdal, senior manager for Dole’s 5 a Day program. However, retail feedback may lead Dole to bring it back in 2005 as a program for any time of the year.

The California Strawberry Commission, Watsonville, developed a cooking school curriculum for retailers, says commission representative Tracie Simmons. This can give parents ideas for healthy snacks they can prepare for children. The commission has a booklet called “Healthy Recipes for Active Lifestyles.” Check the commission’s Web site at www.calstrawberry.com.

Chiquita Brands International Inc., Cincinnati, just launched its Chiquita Health Kick national program to promote health, nutrition and fitness for children and their parents.

Through Aug. 31, children who collect three blue Chiquita stickers from Chiquita fruit and mail them to the company receive a free soccer ball. Chiquita also offers retailers a six-page brochure to distribute that gives nutrition information, fitness tips and healthy recipes.

Megan Ferington, a Chiquita representative, suggests highlighting one of the brochure’s recipes, such as a smoothie, by demonstrating it in the produce department and merchandising the ingredients together near the demo. Visit Chiquita’s Web site, www.chiquita.com, and click on Health Kick to learn more.

3. GET INTO SCHOOLS.

Look for the nutrition initiatives of the schools in your area and find ways to tie in.

This year’s National Nutrition Advisory Council of the Year Award went to Hubert R. Hudson Elementary School in Brownsville, Texas, and fourth-grade teacher Shari Garcia says the school couldn’t have won without the help of H. E. Butt Grocery Co., San Antonio, which operates more than 300 stores.

In May, HEB helped sponsor the school’s 5 a Day day. HEB brought in more than 1,000 pounds of produce — enough for each child to try three items — and set up a 36-foot display arranged by color. Much of the produce was donated to HEB for the event by grower-shippers, says Rob Ybarra, HEB’s director of produce and floral procurement for Mexico. One of Ybarra’s children was a student at the school, which helped him become aware of the opportunities to influence the kids toward fruits and vegetables, he says.

During the day, a school choir sang familiar songs substituting some of the words to incorporate healthy eating messages. “I got goosebumps. I never saw kids get so excited about fruits and vegetables,” Ybarra says.

Ukrop’s helped sponsor a family fun day called Spring into Action at an elementary school one Saturday in April.

Two of Ukrop’s dietitians and its wellness intern distributed literature at the health fair inside the school. The retailer also ran television advertising about the event and arranged for live interviews on the area NBC affiliate television station.

4. GET SCHOOLS INTO YOUR STORES.

If you already have a store tour program, consider ways to refocus it to give it a health message while making it fun.

Even though the goal is to help fight obesity, Sam Lipot, produce supervisor for the five Ahart’s Market stores with headquarters in Bath, Pa., doesn’t mention the word to the students he leads on tours. “I’m just trying to get them to eat (produce). I leave it up to the parents to discuss (the topic),” he says.

Lipot sends a letter to area schools telling them about the tours and how they can make arrangements for their students. “All children receive a bag of goodies to take home as a reminder of some areas covered in our presentation. We include 5 a Day reading materials to share with their parents along with coloring sheets, some fresh fruits and other fun things,” according to the letter. Lipot gets the materials from about 10 commodity boards and shippers.

“After the tours, if I’m in the store and (children) come in with their parents, they always come running up to me calling out ‘Sam the produce man,’” he says. “They tell me they love the tour and are now eating more fruits and vegetables.”

Jungle Jim’s International Market, a single store in Fairfield, Ohio, often centers its store tours on healthy snacking and spends much time discussing produce, says Sarah Baumann, manager of creative services.

She likes to show students less common fruits like Asian pears, jicama, Ugli fruit and golden kiwi. She suggests soy nuts as an alternative snack for candy and points out the healthful snacks that children in other countries choose, like banana chips in South America and wasabi peas in Japan.

5. LOOK OUTSIDE THE INDUSTRY FOR PROMOTION IDEAS.

The produce industry isn’t alone in the quest to fight childhood obesity.

Examine what the packaged food industry does to attract children, says Dick Spezzano, president of Spezzano Consulting Services, Monrovia, Calif., adding, “They have bright colors and sweet taste. …There’s learning you should pick up on and spread to perishables.”

Learn some of the creative things schools do to communicate proper nutrition. The cafeteria at Hubert R. Hudson Elementary School labels the food it serves each day with stoplight colors and the catchwords “go,” “slow” and “whoa,” Garcia says.

The green-light “go” foods are those like fruits and vegetables that are best for the children. The yellow-light “slow” foods are those to be cautious about, and the red-light “whoa” foods are those high in fat or sugar that they should eat sparingly and rarely, she says.

Consider some type of a reward program for children who make healthy eating choices. The school also has a “CATCH Bucks” program in the cafeteria to encourage children to eat healthfully. CATCH stands for Coordinated Approach To Child Health.

Teachers, coaches and cafeteria workers walk around the cafeteria during lunch with fake money called CATCH Bucks, which they award randomly to students who, for example, eat all their vegetables or eat a whole apple, Garcia says.

Students save their CATCH Bucks until they earn enough to visit the CATCH store and “buy” an athletic toy like a Frisbee, jump-rope or basketball.

Foodservice distributor Costa Fruit & Produce Co., Boston, also has a reward program for healthy eating in school cafeterias called imove. Students look for an imove sticker on select healthful items and buy those items for lunch. For every imove item they buy, they receive points towards such prizes as hats, t-shirts, water bottles, backpacks, pedometers, bats and balls.

To keep track of the points, the cafeteria cashier stamps their imove card.