Cereal makers have long designed eye-catching boxes to lure children to supermarket breakfast aisles.
Now, grocers and produce companies are turning to Big Bird and other "Sesame Street" characters in an effort to make fruits and vegetables just as appealing.
An emerging national movement that uses the Muppets to market vegetables to preschoolers got a foothold in Baltimore last week when it was adopted by two area businesses — Mars Super Markets and Savage-based East Coast Fresh, a Mars vendor and processor of fresh-cut fruits and vegetables.
The "eat brighter!" program, created by Sesame Workshop, the Produce Marketing Association and the Partnership for a Healthier America, is designed to spur increased consumption of fruits and vegetables by children ages 2 to 5 and their families. Sesame Workshop is allowing participants to use the top nine Muppets characters on product packaging, marketing and in-store signage and promotions, free of royalties and licensing fees. Retailers and suppliers who sell fresh fruits and vegetables in the United States are eligible to join.
Mars, which operates 17 area stores, kicked off its program last week, displaying Sesame characters on signs in the produce department and unveiling the new "eat brighter!" packaging on fresh-cut fruits and vegetables in the Wise Avenue store in Dundalk.
"Sesame Street is kind of the expert when it comes to engaging and educating children, and I couldn't think of a better way to get this message out," said Chris D'Anna, CEO and chairman of Rosedale-based Mars. "The message is learn more about the nutrients your body needs, learn more about the foods you eat, and make smart choices about it."
The campaign, organized by the produce group, Sesame Workshop and Partnership for a Healthy America, grew out of first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative.
"Imagine what it will be like to have our kids begging us to buy them fruits and vegetables instead of cookies, candy and chips. It can happen," Obama said in announcing the program last October at the White House.
Children who were given a choice between eating an apple, a cookie or both mostly chose the cookies, she said, referring to a study by Cornell University researchers. When they were given the same choice with apples that had Elmo stickers, nearly double chose the apple, she said.
Marketing materials for the campaign were made available in March to stores and suppliers.
"Ultimately, the goal is to drive consumption of fruits and vegetables for kids up to the age of 6 — that's our target audience — with a brand that moms trust and kids love," said Cathy Burns, president of the Newark, Del.-based produce association. "If you think about the Sesame characters and the power of those brands with children 6 and under… we need to create an emotional connection to eating more fruits and vegetables."
Such a connection is now missing in produce departments, she said.
"We're in a health care crisis," with one in three children in the U.S. overweight or obese, Burns said. "If we don't change the trajectory, and what we eat is an important part, this will be the first generation that does not live as long as [their] parents. "
Children ages 3 to 5 are five times as likely to be overweight or obese as adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
East Coast Fresh approached Mars about launching the program in the Baltimore area, D'Anna said.
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While more than 20,000 retail stores have acknowledged support for the "eat brighter!" campaign, Mars is among the first to put the marketing and products packaged with "Sesame Street" characters in place, Burns said. Other retailers that have said they support the effort but have not yet implemented programs include Giant Food of Landover, Safeway, Sam's Club, Shoppers, Wegmans and others.
"Baltimore's East Coast Fresh was the absolute first adopter, and Mars was one of the early retail adopters," Burns said.
The produce association expects additional chains to roll out the new marketing in coming months.
Mars is carrying "Sesame Street"-branded produce in all its stores, D'Anna said. The chain also opted for the in-store marketing materials, including signs, shelf tags and window banners, which it hopes to eventually bring to all its stores.
At the Wise Avenue store, signs with "Sesame Street" characters greets shoppers in the front window. In the produce department, a red furry Elmo peeks out from a package of red grapes.
"Having 'Sesame Street' characters in the store gets attention, but when paired with the messaging, it could be very effective," D'Anna said. "You have to start somewhere when you're talking about changing some of these habits."