Into The Mouths Of Babes

They can’t vote, drive or in some cases tie their shoes. Yet, they may be our industry’s most important customers. They are young children, and new research offers valuable insight into how to get more of our industry’s products into the mouths of these babes.

There are about 36 million children aged 3-11 in the United States alone — a tremendous consumer base in their own right. However, they and their families also happen to be the worst fruit and vegetable, consumers. Nearly two-thirds of those consumers who aren’t even getting their 5-A-Day are families with children, according to 2005 NPD Group research for Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH) — and that’s regardless of family income, household size, education level or occupation.

This consumption gap presents an opportunity for the produce industry.

New Produce Marketing Association (PMA) consumer research offers helpful tips on how to push kids’ produce consumption higher. Opinion Dynamics Corporation surveyed 1,000 consumers for us by telephone in early January to gauge children’s produce consumption. (This research is available from PMA’s Solution Center.)

What’s keeping kids from eating enough fruits and vegetables? The shoppers we surveyed ranked taste and experience issues as being significant barriers; time pressures followed closely behind. That is, 82 percent said taste factors, such as kids not liking the taste of some fruits and vegetables, were somewhat to a very significant barrier. Meanwhile, 80 percent cited children’s previous bad experiences, and 70 percent cited not having enough time in the day to get all those fruits and veggies.

It isn’t that children don’t like our foods — we know from personal experience they do so with gusto. More formally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) fledgling Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) that funds free school fruit and vegetable snacks has increased kids’ consumption, and they are asking for more fruits and vegetables at home. Other research has shown that just giving kids more options, such as a salad bar, can increase their consumption at school lunchtime.

What, then, is keeping kids from eating more of our products? The shoppers we surveyed cited making fruits and vegetables appealing (28 percent) as the greatest challenge, while 24 percent cited getting the family enthused or involved. On the other hand, 34 percent couldn’t put their finger on what was keeping kids from eating more.

These responses suggest we can increase consumption and sales by helping our customers make our foods more appealing to their families. This could include offering products for sale in ways that make them more eye appealing and suggesting a broad range of great tasting meal and snack ideas.

Where do we start to change children’s consumption? Most shoppers (87 percent) told us they think it is somewhat to very important to make produce consumption fun for kids. Over two-thirds agreed putting cartoon or superhero characters on packaging can help make fruits and vegetable fun, though 25 percent disagreed with that marketing tactic. Over one half (61 percent) said parents are most effective at getting kids to eat fruits and vegetables regularly. Friends and peers, and schools followed distantly; 17 percent thought all these influencers were equally powerful. In fact, only 5 percent believe schools are an effective way to introduce fresh fruits and vegetables to children.

I think three particularly impactful channels through which we can work to grow children’s fruit and vegetable consumption are parents, eating places and policy.

By giving parents — especially moms — the guidance they need in the places they look for such help, we can help them better care for their families and feel better about themselves in the process. Offer Mom kid-friendly recipes, other product use ideas and suggestions for involving kids in food preparation at home to create quality time, too. The new Fruits and Veggies — More Matters! brand replacing 5-A-Day in March is mom-focused; contact PBH to find out how to put the new brand to work for you.

By working to get healthful produce options on kids’ menus at restaurants, we can increase kids’ consumption and help moms feel better about dining out. With some notable exceptions, our foods are largely absent from kids’ menus today. (As a regular restaurant patron, I know there is room to improve the regular menu, too.)

On the policy front, a recent USDA proposal shows the potential: increasing fruit and vegetable access for the millions of moms and young children served by the WIC nutrition safety-net program will create $500 million in annual sales. Our industry has considerable grassroots power to encourage governments to execute the Dietary Guidelines for Americans in their own food policies and programs. PMA has made it a priority to help our industry do this.

The produce sector is in a unique position within the food industry. Fruits and vegetables are among the only food groups we are being encouraged to eat more of, not less. Not only are our products good looking and good tasting, but they are better for health and a healthful weight, too. We are in a position to help end our nation’s obesity epidemic and grow our sales in the process. Imagine the possibilities if just the children ate their minimum servings a day. Now that would be truly an investment in a brighter future.