Retailers are making the grade this summer with healthy-positioned back-to-school products.
Until recently, the health and wellness trend aimed primarily at adult audiences, while kid food products continued to be dominated by high-fat and high-sugar items. But with childhood obesity now on the agenda, schools are promoting healthy eating in cafeterias and in vending machines, and parents are looking for healthier snacks and lunch box fare.
Sales of better-for-you, kid-aimed products jumped 26.8% to $4.3 billion from 2002 to 2005, while all consumer packaged goods grew only slightly, according to Information Resources Inc.
"Parents are trying to buy their kids more healthy foods like baby carrots and even whole-wheat pretzels or whole-grain crackers instead of potato chips," said Krista Coleman, spokeswoman for Wild Oats Markets, Boulder, Colo.
As a result, children's products with a healthy image are graduating to Center Store aisles as retailers cater to back-to-school shoppers.
At Treasure Island Food Marts, an upscale, six-store chain in Chicago, whole-grain cereals, granola bars and real-juice boxes are selling quickly, said Alan Arimaq, manager of one of the stores. "These items seem to be moving better than in past years," he said. "Also, smaller package sizes such as the 5-ounce snack bags and products such as baked chips are popular because of the desire for healthy foods for both parents and children."
Many of those strong-selling products will be featured in Treasure Island's front display, which changes every week, Arimaq said.
Behind all this new-product activity is a growing alarm among parents and policy makers over childhood obesity. Many schools are replacing sugary soda in their vending machines with water, milk, juice and diet soda. Earlier this year, the
three biggest soft drink companies agreed to limit sales of soda in public schools.
Many school boards are reviewing their districts' food policies and cafeteria menus in response to the federal Child Nutrition and Women, Infants and Children Reauthorization Act of 2004, which requires every district in the country to adopt and implement a wellness policy by the start of the 2006-07 school year. For example, the West Windsor-Plainsboro school board in New Jersey, where 20% of sixth-graders reportedly were found to be obese in 2002, recently enacted a policy banning all foods and beverages listing sugar as the first ingredient. The policy also encourages schools to serve fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains.
For their part, many food companies are remaking products in small packages and making them more nutritious.
Products with reduced fat and calories are already well-developed across all key children-aimed categories like cold cereal, bread and snack foods. Geared toward label-reading parents, new items are making organic, reduced/no-sugar, reduced/no-sodium and whole-grain/high-fiber claims, according to IRI. Examples include Kraft's sugar-free Jell-O snack cups, Earth's Best cookies and crackers, and Frito-Lay snack packs.
Increasingly, products are promoted as functional or aiding in portion control, according to IRI.
In the drink aisle, beverage brands are trying to ride the bottled-water wave with kids' products.
Bottled water, particularly products in kid sizes, are thriving, as are calorie-controlled foods, said Dale Monson, a grocery director for Cub Foods, based in Stillwater, Minn. "Parents are hearing from schools about guidelines for good nutrition, and they are buying 100-calorie packs and portion-controlled snacks."
The fun quotient is big in new children's products, like Kellogg's Yogos Fruit Snacks, described as "yogurty-covered fruity dots," and NestlT Waters' bubble-shaped, 11-ounce Aquapod bottle.
George Carey, president of Just Kid, a Stamford, Conn.-based research company, said successful products will be the ones kids like.
"You have to have a collision of kid appeal and nutrition," he said. "The products that have worked are ones that are packaged to look like a party invitation to kids. You cannot strip the fun or the taste out of food to get nutrition."
Retailers get that, too. At Wild Oats, organic, squeezable, yogurt-fruit smoothies are popular with kids and parents, Coleman said. "You can partially freeze them so they will keep cool until lunchtime. Mini trail mix packets, such as the Wild Oats' trail mix in 2-ounce sizes, are perfect for kids and people on the go. They are nutritious, delicious and conveniently packaged."
Wild Oats planned to host a Fun Foods Active Sampling event this month. The retailer also produces an in-store magazine with eating healthy tips, activities for kids and coupons for parents.
Retailers risk being held back if they don't take full advantage of the opportunities out there, however. Private label is one area of concern. According to IRI, store brands have gobbled a sizeable share of many kid-driven categories, like bread (26.6%), juice and juice drinks (18.5%) and cookies (14%). When it comes to the better-for-you segment of those categories, though, private label's share drops off in many cases, IRI data show - grounds, it seems, for a failing grade.