(Aug. 14) Matthew Caito’s 4-year-old daughter wanted a snack before bed one night.

Caito said she grabbed a box of cereal, but when he showed her a package of Disney Garden sliced apples featuring characters from “The Incredibles,” she chose them instead.

“She ate the entire bag and went to bed,” said Caito, chief executive officer of Indianapolis-based Imagination Farms, the company that markets Disney Garden fresh produce.

Research shows that children as young as 2 can recognize familiar characters in stores and remember brands, said Vivica Kraak, senior program officer for the Institute of Medicine, Washington, D.C.

Imagination Farms packages show Disney characters eating, touching, smelling or harvesting produce to encourage children do the same, Caito said.

“I see it in the eyes of my little kids,” Caito said. “These characters are their friends. If they can see their friends interacting with it (the produce), it makes them more excited about it.”

MARKETING TO CHILDREN

Each year, children and teenagers spend an estimated $200 billion on items such as compact discs, snacks and clothes, Kraak said.

When buying without parent permission, 8- to 12-year-olds most often choose food and beverages that are low in nutrients and high in calories, she said, while Teenagers under 18 most often spend their own money on candy, soft drinks and salty snacks.

Processed foods like those are more often branded, advertised and promoted than are fresh fruits and vegetables, Kraak said.

Consumers, especially children, tend to be less interested in produce brand names and more interested in flavor, said Lorna Christie, senior vice president of industry products and services for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.

She said produce companies are increasingly marketing small snack- or child-size packages and offering products with fun connotations, such as Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Sunkist Growers’ Fun Fruit line, which includes Apple Grins, Orange Smiles and Pineapple Pals.

Cartoon characters, which have long adorned cereal and high-calorie food packages, are more often showing up on produce packages, Christie said.

Coosaw Farms, Fairfax, S.C., for example, uses the National Watermelon Promotion Board’s skateboarding cartoon character, J. Slice, on its watermelon bins.

Other companies using cartoon characters on produce packaging include Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., Grimmway Farms, Bakersfield, Calif., and Ready Pac Produce Inc., Irwindale, Calif.

MICKEY AND FRIENDS

Odron said he’d like to see more campaigns like Disney Magic Selections, a private-label brand announced in July by Disney Consumer Products, Burbank, Calif., and Kroger.

Fresh produce is a relatively small part of the line, but the overall emphasis is on getting children interested in eating more healthfully, said Clint Hayashi, corporate communications manager for Disney Consumer Products.

As of Aug. 4, Imagination Farms’ Disney Garden brand had 25 stock-keeping units. Caito said he expected that to increase to 200 SKUs by the end of 2007, with sliced apples, grapes, watermelon, pumpkins and organic produce expected to be available later this year.

Imagination Farms’ packages direct children to its Web site, where they can learn about produce and enter contests, Caito said.

“We put interesting fun facts, games or nutritional information on packages, like ‘How many cherries does it take to get the energy to do 10 jumping jacks?’” he said.

Nickelodeon recently licensed “Dora the Explorer,” “The Backyardigans” and other characters for use by Borton & Sons Inc., Yakima, Wash., on apple and pear packaging. Those are expected to roll out in September.

LGS Specialty Sales Ltd., New York, plans to launch two new packaging options featuring Nickelodeon characters. Darling Clementines “Backyardigans” and “Blues Clues” boxes and bags are expected to be available in November.

Grimmway Farms, Bakersfield, Calif., and Boskovich Farms Inc., Oxnard, Calif., feature Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants on packages of carrots and spinach.

And for the second season, New York-based Sesame Workshop and Wenatchee, Wash.-based Stemilt Growers Inc. are putting Elmo from “Sesame Street” on promotional materials.