Natural Foods Merchandiser

Merchandising the Organic Lunch Box

It won't be long before parents start purchasing pencils, clothing and other back-to-school supplies for their kids. With a little savvy merchandising and marketing, natural foods retailers can make sure healthy and convenient foods are also on the list. And the timing is right.

Shayne Law, brand manager for Chico, Calif.-based R.W. Knudsen, points out that September is organic harvest month, and many manufacturers promote organic foods at that time. The convergence of the harvest with back-to-school preparations presents a real marketing opportunity for retailers, he says.

In addition, concern about what children are eating is moving up on the national radar screen as childhood obesity rates soar. USA Today reported May 5 that between 20 percent and 30 percent of children in the United States are overweight or at risk for becoming so, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study.

"One in seven children is obese, which classifies this disease as an epidemic," says Gary Hirshberg, president of Londonderry, N.H.-based Stonyfield Farm.

Meanwhile, many children take highly processed, prepackaged meals such as Oscar Mayer's Lunchables or they eat fast food for school lunch. "Armed with information on obesity rates, retailers can help safeguard children's health by promoting healthier foods," says Hirshberg.

Show And Tell
To successfully sell organic and natural lunch and snack alternatives to parents and kids, retailers need to create effective and convenient displays and market the products in a compelling manner, says Marty Baird, founder of Phoenix-based Nutritional Marketing. Even more important is getting the consumer to sample the product.

"The No. 1 point is to generate trial," Baird says. "You need to get the mom to pick up the product and say, 'I'd like to try this,' and you have to get the child to eat it."

Baird recommends that retailers offer summertime programs for children. In the current economy, parents are looking for no-cost and low-cost activities to keep their kids occupied.

"Retailers have direct contact with consumers and can impact their behavior when it comes to everyday food choices."

—Gary Hirshberg
president, Stonyfield Farm

Instead of just offering free samples in a box at the checkout counter, host an in-store demonstration for kids on how to make balloon animals, Baird says. Serve a healthy snack during the event, and charge a $2 attendance fee that is donated to a local children's charity. When the parents come to pick up their children, tell them what the kids did and give them a list of the healthy foods they ate that are available in your store. "Make [sampling] part of something bigger," he says.

When creating displays, Baird suggests retailers take "a Garanimals approach to school nutrition." He advises putting together a match-up-the-colors meal program that's easy for parents to use. For example, retailers could color-code drinks in red, proteins in orange, snacks in yellow, fruits and vegetables in green, and desserts in purple, and encourage parents to put together a rainbow to make a complete meal.

Doing The Homework
Marketing is critical to a successful back-to-school organic lunch campaign. Baird recommends a range of tools. First, to generate trial, offer to donate snacks and drinks to a local youth sports team once a month.

Second, get the word out about the importance of children's nutrition. Send press releases on topics such as "Seven Things You Need to Know about Kids' Nutrition" to local newspapers, radio and TV stations. Or bring kids to a TV studio and have them try organic foods for a local morning show—just make sure you choose foods the kids will like.

Third, educate schools and parents. Send a press release on children's nutrition to schools, and ask the principal to include it in kids' back-to-school packets. Offer teachers a nutrition information day before school starts, where they can learn about the latest nutritional information and sample kids' organic foods. "When you do these [workshops], they can't just be product pitches," Baird says. "They need to be educational while providing information on the products you sell."

Manufacturers can also be a helpful resource for retailers when merchandising and marketing organic lunch-box foods for back to school.

Irradiated Beef OK'd for Schools
The U.S. Department of Agriculture gave the go-ahead May 29 for public schools to use irradiated beef in their lunches. Proponents of the high-tech hamburger say radiation eliminates bacteria, a common source of food-borne illness. They also maintain that it has not resulted in any adverse effects in those who eat it. Skeptics suspect that long-term exposure to the radiolytic products in the meat raises the risk of cancer and genetic damage.
"I think most manufacturers recognize the [opportunity] that back to school [offers] if they have products that are a fit," says Law of R.W. Knudsen. "Cross merchandising is probably one of the most effective things retailers can do, and we're always open to spending product-demo funds upon request." For example, Law says R.W. Knudsen and Santa Cruz usually discount their organic juice boxes and applesauce cups in August and September, and there are case-display allowances for back-to-school marketing programs.

Taking a comprehensive approach, Stonyfield Farm is leading a grassroots campaign called "Menu for Change: Getting Healthy Foods Into Schools." The campaign encourages parents to demand safer, more nutritious food options for their children, and retailers are part of this effort, says Hirshberg. "Retailers have direct contact with consumers and can impact their behavior when it comes to everyday food choices. I want to call on retailers to help make a difference in children's health and nutrition."

One component of Stonyfield's Menu for Change is the "Organic Lunchbox Challenge," which asks parents to include at least one organic item in their children's lunch boxes each day during the 2003-04 school year—a program natural foods retailers can get behind.

Another element is a parent action kit that includes draft letters to legislators, model healthy food legislation and a child-obesity fact sheet. Stonyfield is also engaged in lobbying activities and is working to recognize schools that make efforts to support better nutritional health.

Baird suggests retailers take the long-term view. He points out that good nutrition begins at an early age and that even if retail sales of organic lunch-box foods aren't spectacular now, kids who are introduced to healthy, organic foods today can become lifelong organic foods customers.

Joyanna Laughlin is a freelance writer in Estes Park, Colo. She may be reached at [email protected].

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 7/p. 20, 24

Healthy Lunch Foods That Kids Won't Trade

Retailers can easily spotlight organic lunchbox choices in a back-to-school marketing and merchandising program. A couple of prepackaged alternatives to Oscar Mayer brand Lunchables are The Organic Lunchbox by Applegate Farms (see NFM, April 2003, page 17) and The Good Lunch by Yves Veggie Cuisine.

If parents want to assemble their children's lunches, consider the following:


  • Sandwiches—organic peanut butter and jelly or organic lunch meats and cheeses
  • Veggie-based "chicken" strips or veggie dogs
  • Natural and organic low-fat yogurt for kids in regular and squeezable packaging


  • Fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Fruit leathers
  • Organic tortilla chips
  • Organic popcorn and soybean snacks
  • Organic applesauce cups


  • Soy pudding
  • Nondairy frozen desserts
  • Naturally sweetened cookies


  • Sports drinks
  • Premium waters
  • Organic juice boxes and spritzers

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 7/p. 24

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