Natural Foods Merchandiser

Healthy school lunches are 'In the Bag'

Produce Perspectives

If you're like me, you've seen the research showing that regular exercise and a healthy diet may be the best option for preventing illness and living longer. That may be why the food offerings in schools are changing for the better these days.

Whether it is removing soda and candy machines from high schools, offering free oranges and apples at middle schools, or adding salad bars to the cafeteria and fresh-cooking programs to the curriculum, students across the country are getting the opportunity to eat better and learn about how these healthy choices can have positive effects on their lives.

But what about the lunches that come from home? Because everyone is so busy these days, meals, and especially lunch, often get short shrift. It comes down to what's easiest to prepare and what the kids will eat. And if what my daughters tell me is true, many sack lunches end up in the garbage can, meaning some kids aren't eating lunch at all. That certainly can't be good for their brains or their bodies. And that's where we can be of help in our produce departments.

Why not start a program this school year to help busy families eat better lunches? You can call it In The Bag, and each week dedicate a produce end cap to providing a new lunch idea. You can begin with apples and bagged baby carrots along with peanut butter and organic flatbreads. It would be bright and colorful, make for a healthy lunch for your customers, and wouldn't hurt your sales, either.

You could set out premade and prepriced bags with each of these items included. Parents will love you because of the easy and healthy food solutions you are providing them, and the kids will love you because you are giving them something fun and tasty to eat.

Or you could do what New Leaf Markets in Santa Cruz, Calif., did and get the whole store involved. I was in the Mission Street store the other day, where I was greeted by a beautiful banner hanging in the window that said Brain Food. It pictured a chef helping a smiling child cut up some fresh fruit. That image enticed me into the store, where I saw a newsletter, also titled "Brain Food," with an article about diet and how it can improve kids' ability to focus and retain information.

In the produce department, next to various items, I saw small laminated signs that said "Pack for a perfect lunch" and "Check out our August flier for details," so I did. There were articles about making better lunch choices, including "the perfectly packed lunch," deconstructed with several suggestions for bread, fruits, veggies and fun sandwich choices. The article featured a nice color picture of some of these items in a portioned-out container. As I walked around the store, I saw "Pack for a perfect lunch" signs in every department, next to items mentioned in the article and highlighted in the sale flier.

That's when I ran into Sparrow Johnson, the store manager. She pointed out the laptop lunch box that was featured in the deconstruction article and told me it was created by some local moms to make it easier to pack healthy lunches for kids. It has portioned containers in a case that looks like a laptop computer. It comes with a carrying bag that looks just like the ones office road warriors use, and it's easy to clean for the next day. So I went to the product Web site,, and found a wealth of great information on how to make a better lunch, including answers to such problems as lunchtime boredom and handling picky eaters.

The Web site also included some great menu ideas to help you create In The Bag displays each week in your department.

So what are you waiting for? You have my In The Bag idea, a menu and a store you can call if you want more information on how the program works. It couldn't be easier to get started, and there is no time like the present.

Mark Mulcahy runs Organic Options, an organic education and produce consulting firm. He can be reached at 707.939.8355 or at [email protected]

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 10/p. 90

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