Natural Foods Merchandiser

Organic Foods Packaged for Grade School Set

Growing demand for organics has created the opportunity to shut highly processed, prepackaged foods out of kids' lunch boxes and has opened the door wide for naturals retailers to market healthier alternatives to parents.

"Parents are more concerned than ever about what their kids eat," says Marty Baird, founder of Phoenix-based Nutritional Marketing. And Scott Yacovino, marketing manager for Branchburg, N.J.-based organic deli-meats producer Applegate Farms, says, "The organic regulations being finalized [has created] a big push" from consumers for organic products.

Plus, there's the growing body of research on kids and pesticides. "In a study last October that looked at kids in the Seattle area who ate mostly organic [vs.] kids who ate mostly conventional foods, those who ate conventional had nine times the level of pesticides in their urine than the kids who ate organic," says Alan Greene, M.D., author of The Parent's Soup A-to-Z Guide to Your Toddler (Contemporary Books, 1999). He is also founder and chief executive of

Greene says a healthy, organic lunch box is packed with a fruit, a vegetable, a whole-grain treat, and a source of lean protein and calcium. In January, at Organic Odyssey in Venice, Calif., Greene presented an organic lunch box that contained an apple, packaged carrots, a sandwich made from whole-grain bread and organic cheese, and a yogurt cup. He added a squeezable yogurt for a snack.

Other organic options include: whole-milk yogurt with fresh fruit, nuts and pretzels; hummus with veggies for dipping; a thermos of homemade soup or stew or left-overs from dinner, says Deborah Breakell, certified family nurse practitioner at Helios Health Center, an integrative family medicine clinic in Boulder, Colo.

Most parents want to do their best to make sure their children eat healthy, with one caveat: It's got to be easy, Baird says. But what do parents do when they are short on time or their children are screaming for Oscar Mayer's Lunchables brand because all the other kids have it?

Enter the organic, prepackaged lunch box—an alternative to conventional, prepackaged lunches and a market opportunity for natural foods manufacturers and retailers.

The trick to creating successful, organic, prepackaged lunch boxes is to "make sure that we are building products that kids want to eat," says Phil Lempert, editor of, author and food-trend critic for NBC's "Today" show. He suggests using foods with great mouth feel, like cheeses and crackers, in a small size that's easy for kids to handle. "For anyone to be successful in this venue, they've got to not try to recreate what Oscar Mayer has done. They've got to do it better with better food," Lempert says.

Applegate Farms aims to do just that with a line of prepackaged kids' meals containing organic deli meats, cheese and crackers. The Organic Lunchbox debuted in March at Natural Products Expo West with three SKUs: turkey bologna or turkey breast with crackers, string cheese and fruit bears; or pepperoni pizza with mini pizza crusts, mozzarella cheese and natural tomato sauce. Product should hit retailers' shelves, beginning with Whole Foods Markets and Wild Oats Markets, in June or July. Full-scale distribution is expected in September.

Positioning is crucial. Baird says, because organic, prepackaged kids' lunches compete with Lunchables, and the name also is critical. He worries that a product with "organic" in the name won't ring cool with the grade-school set. Baird says the packaging must not only be attractive enough that the child won't be embarrassed to take it to school, but it must stand out in a way that passes muster with other kids. He recommends packaging in bright primary colors such as reds, oranges and yellows that children see earliest and are attracted to, as well as using shapes like triangles, squares, circles and stars.

Yacovino disagrees and says that Applegate went out of its way to not look like its competition. Instead, the company hired Humor Dynamics, a division of Modern Humorist, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based entertainment company, to create "The Lunch Crew." The trademarked gang of construction-working characters with names like Jackhammer Joe and Jigsaw Jenny represent The Organic Lunchbox on the packaging and deliver an organic message with a wit that appeals to kids.

Yacovino says the characters, plus superior product quality and appealing graphics, make the products stand out from the competition.

When it comes to distribution, "you want to be right next to Lunchables in the supermarket," Lempert says. "There could be an opportunity in both [channels], but you don't want to go [solely] to alternative distribution, because that's not where people are used to buying this kind of product."

Greene agrees with Lempert but takes a slightly different view when it comes to organic food for kids beyond prepackaged meals. "For parents who are trying to do something for their kids now, if they shop at a Whole Foods Market or a farmers market, they don't have to go up against the [conventional kids' meals], and it's easier to get the kids excited about the organic choices."

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

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