KANSAS CITY — This August and September, many US schoolchildren will return to classrooms for the first time in over a year.

For growers and marketers of fresh fruits and vegetables, that will mean meeting a lot of pent-up demand for healthy lunchbox alternatives, as parents seek to get their kids’ lives back to normal. And post-COVID, staying healthy will be more important than ever, and produce will play a crucial role.

The Orlando-based Healthy Family Project, the umbrella organization for Produce for Kids, has two initiatives on tap for back-to-school, said Amanda Keefer, the organization’s managing director.

The first is an instore campaign at all Stop & Shop locations. Five produce suppliers are already signed up for the promotion, Stop & Shop dietitians will give presentations on TV and the retailer will also feature recipes and other information on its website.

Stop & Shop shoppers will also find the Produce for Kids and Feeding America logos with QR codes alongside produce partners throughout the campaign, which is set for Aug. 20 – Sept. 30.

The QR codes will take shoppers to a Produce for Kids landing page on www.StopandShop.com featuring a downloadable e-Cookbook featuring produce partners in back-to-school centric recipes. A Facebook Live cooking class will be held on Sept. 8 on the Healthy Family Project Facebook page showcasing fun ways to include partners in easy weeknight meals. Produce partners for the Stop & Shop campaign will be making a donation impacting the Feeding America food banks in the Stop & Shop market area. 

It will be the first post-pandemic instore program for the Healthy Family Project —and, as a result, much anticipated.

“What keeps us afloat are the retail programs we run,” Keefer said.

That said, one silver lining of the pandemic was it forced more traditional retailers to pick up their digital games, she said.

“A lot of them are now coming to us wanting to do Facebook Live cooking classes” and other digital content.

Getting kids involved

The second back-to-school campaign on tap for the Healthy Family Project is an all-digital Power Your Lunchbox initiative aimed at getting kids to prepare their own lunches.

Bee Sweet Citrus, Pero Family Farms, Nature Fresh Farms, Crispy Green freeze-dried snacks and Yo Quiero guacamole, salsa and queso are among the produce suppliers who will participate. Traditionally, Keefer said, Power Your Lunchbox promotions are geared toward parents. This year’s promotion will be different.

“It’s all about empowering kids,” she said, mentioning a superhero theme as part of the effort to get kids excited about preparing their own lunches. “We did a big video shoot with kids in the kitchen.”

The promotion will include tips on how parents can help by prepping fruits and vegetables, then placing them in the fridge for kids to take out the next day as they prepared their lunchboxes for school.

Also as part of the promotion, Healthy Family Project will make a $12,000 donation to United Fresh Start Foundation to increase accessibility to fruits and vegetables in schools. 

Throughout August and September, the home base for all things lunchboxes will be www.poweryourlunchbox.com, Keefer said. Healthy Family Project will be promoting easy, healthy and tasty registered dietitian lunch ideas across social media channels including a new Power Your Lunchbox Tik Tok. A Facebook Live lunchbox focused event will take place August 25 with Healthy Family Project’s junior chef Charli showing families (most importantly kids) how to make easy, fun lunchboxes.

Also during those two months, consumers can showcase their own lunchboxes by using the hashtag #poweryourlunchbox across social media and partake in a #poweryourlunchbox Twitter party on Aug. 25. Several dietitians and influencers in addition to Healthy Family Project, will be supporting the Power Your Lunchbox message and featuring health-conscious brand partners across their blogs and social media outlets. 

The Healthy Family Project will also give a shout-out to the nation’s teachers, who had to work harder than most during the pandemic. As part of its back-to-school promotions, the organization will sponsor a “nominate your favorite teacher” contest.

“We feel they need to be celebrated after COVID,” Keefer said.

Opportunities to reconnect

With school returning to at least some kind of normal this fall, expect to see a lot of companies focusing in on back-to-school with promotions and increased marketing efforts, said TJ Wilson, brand and key account manager for Vancouver, B.C.-based Oppy.

“As one of the first timeframes in 2021 that will resemble a pre-pandemic world, both parents and children anticipate returning to both their offices and schools,” Wilson said. “This will create a lot of opportunities for brands and retailers to reconnect with this important consumer segment during such a pivotal and historical promotional time frame.” 

Oppy’s own back-to-school efforts will lean on the company’s portfolio of Ocean Spray fresh produce offerings, showing consumers what Wilson calls a “new school way” to enjoy the iconic brand. 

With a full lineup of Ocean Spray-branded berries, grapes, and summer citrus offerings, Oppy is well-positioned, Wilson said, to support retailers’ back-to-school promotions with products that are perfect for building healthy lunches and snacks for all ages.

“Both August and September are months where our farms are producing strong volumes across all three Ocean Spray fresh categories,” he said. “This will provide retailers an opportunity to feature a well-known and trusted brand in their ads as well as instore to drive incremental sales dollars during a key shopping event.”

To get their back-to-school messages across, Oppy will focus even more on connecting with consumers through digital platforms, and Wilson expects other shippers, marketers and retailers to do the same. 

During the pandemic, e-commerce sales of fresh produce saw unprecedented growth, and Wilson doesn’t expect that to change once the pandemic is finally in the rearview mirror.

“Now more than ever, it’s pivotal for brands to continue developing relationships with consumers across the various digital touch points and defining a hybrid marketing strategy that can be effective with both consumers shopping in brick and mortar locations as well as driving conversion within the e-commerce space.”

Back-to-school is “pivotal” for Oppy, Wilson said. It gives the company the opportunity to showcase a wide variety of its products during peak production, and to spotlight not only Ocean Spray but also other blue-chip brands Envy and Jazz (apples), and Zespri (kiwifruit).

“We’re not only able to serve as a customer’s one-stop-shop for their back-to-school produce needs, but we’re also able to work closely with them to curate their promotional assortments,” Wilson said. “By allowing them to differentiate their stores from the competition with flavorful and highly sought-after products, they will deliver exactly what consumers need as they return to their pre-pandemic routines.”

During COVID, the interest in foods that boost immune systems and have other health benefits, and parents will no doubt have that in mind when they send their kids back to in-person school this fall. 

Nutritious, delicious — and promotable

Citrus is not only good for you, it’s also delicious and incredibly easy to eat, said Christina Ward, senior director of global marketing for Valencia, Calif.-based Sunkist Growers.

“As kids return to school in person, we’re excited to bring fresh ideas and convenience to those preparing their meals, from citrus-forward snacks and meal prepping inspiration to shopper-approved merchandising programs,” Ward said.

Sunkist will start off with Valencia oranges, lemons, and grapefruit for back-to-school shopping before navels, easy-peeler Sunkist Delite mandarins and other varieties begin shipping in the fall. 

Citrus, especially oranges, has been a long-time favorite among parents and kids. For parents who want to add zest to back-to-school meals, Sunkist.com/recipes offers plenty of recipes that kids will love, Ward said. It can even inspire parents to serve citrus in new ways, such as offering a grapefruit brûlée for breakfast or adding lemon or berries to plain water for a more flavorful drink. 

Convenient packaging and instore displays also play an important part in promoting citrus and making it easy to shop, Ward added. A back-to-school destination with an assortment of snacking fruits like oranges, apples, and strawberries can help build on the excitement for the return to in-person learning.

Back-to-school also means after-school. For activities that kick off once the final bell of the day has rung, Sunkist will be promoting orange wedges as a post-game treat.