Fuel for school

Providing parents with solutions for school lunches and snacks can build customer loyalty throughout the year
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It may still be summer, but savvy grocers, and many exhausted parents, are already turning their attention towards the busy back-to-school season. By August, consumers with children are beginning to plan what essentials they’ll need to stock up on, while watching for innovative new child-friendly food and beverages that will make the grind of daily lunch prep easier.

“Back to school has become a formal season in the retail year,” says Kathy Perrotta, vice-president, Canada for Ipsos Marketing. “And anytime there’s a new season, it’s an opportunity to reconnect with consumers.” For retailers hoping to cash in on this lucrative season, it means understanding the purchasing drivers of today’s parents and meeting their demands with the right merchandising mix. Even more importantly, it’s an opportunity to position your store to parents as their one-stop solutions provider for all their back-to-school food and beverage needs, guaranteeing they remain loyal customers throughout the school year.

Health is the priority when it comes to what parents are looking for in snacks and lunch foods. “Most of the parents of school-aged children are millennials, and we know they’re the most health-conscious generation to date,” says Jo-Ann McArthur, president of Nourish Food Marketing. “So what we’re seeing is a growth in better-for-you snacks with cleaner ingredient decks. For kids, it’s less about calories and more about additional functional benefits, like high protein.” That includes more satiating and nutritious versions of traditional snack and lunchbox favourites, and creative alternatives with kid-appealing flavours and parent-approved functional benefits.

Convenience, appropriately-sized portioning, and portability are also crucial for this cohort, says McArthur, who notes that “millennials are a generation of snackers.” As a result, snacks have become mini-meal options. “So they’re choosing healthier veggie-based snacks like beet chips or dried fruit like apple chips for their children.” That’s led to a rise in puffed and popped snacks over fried, savoury over sweet, and surprisingly “adult” flavours in kids’ snacks, such as jalapeño, “with the intensity levels dialled down for kids,” says McArthur. “Kids are developing an adventurous palate at a much earlier age.”

Overall, says Perrotta, 48% of all items being consumed in carried-from- home occasions for kids are now snacks. “So, the fastest way into the pantries of today’s young, educated millennial parents is through snack foods that offer compromise between what will appeal to kids and what’s mom- or dad-approved in terms of nutrition. We know that 60% of parents read labels, and for 75% of those parents what they see on the label influences their decision to buy. They want snacks that are natural and real-food oriented, but with little or no planning and preparation time. And it’s not about depravation or going without, it’s about balance.”

“Health is definitely becoming more of a focus,” agrees Julie Bednarski, founder and president of The Healthy Crunch Company, “but, ultimately, snacks have to taste good or kids are not going to eat them.” Bednarski began Healthy Crunch four years ago producing allergen-free kale chips, and in the past year has launched a full lineup of family and school-friendly snack foods. Last fall, Healthy Crunch launched seven SKUs of allergen-free trail mix, as well as a range of Coconut Chips in 14 flavours. Both products were launched in 225-gram packages, and will soon be available in 25-gram packs based on customer demand for pre-portioned, child-appropriate serving sizes.

“In September we’re also launching our School Approved Bars, which will be 22-gram single portions for kids with a serving of vegetables, probiotics, fibre, and just one to two grams of sugar,” says Bednarski. The company will also roll out four SKUs of its new nut-free spread with two grams of sugar per serving, and jams featuring just three to four grams of sugar.

At Calgary Co-op, director of grocery operations Adam Tully says parents are looking for healthy, natural, allergen-free foods, and “they’re not willing to compromise health for quick and convenient.” Tully also sees more customers buying ingredients to make their own healthy school snacks, noting that “a lot of the schools don’t want kids to have the sugar at school—they want the sugar at home, or it has to be a natural sugar.”

READ: Making the most of back-to-school sales

The demand for low- and no-sugar options is also playing out in beverages. “We’re seeing sweetness levels over time being organically dialled down in beverages,” says McArthur, who also notes the growth of alternatives like nut and oat milk. Tully has also observed a move away from juice boxes to water. Although some schools prefer children bring tap water in reusable containers, Tully says “water sales are still chugging along nicely, as consumers are buying bottled water for different occasions with their kids. We’re also seeing smaller-size formats, such as a 330-mL bottle a child can take in their lunch.”

Traditional sandwiches have lost their place in the school lunchbox in favour of pick-and-pack type lunches that cover all the food groups. In fact, “less than a third of all school lunches for kids under 13 now include sandwiches,” says Perrotta. Instead, the top items carried from home for school lunch are fresh fruit, cheese, fresh-cut vegetables, yogurt, crackers, dips and salsa, bars, and veggie chips of all kinds.

“Traditional lunches really have gone out the window,” agrees Christy McMullen, co-owner of Toronto’s Summerhill Market. “Parents are getting more creative with lunches; they’re putting in different snacks or prepared meals like small containers of quinoa salad.” Current bestsellers, she notes, include seaweed snacks, crackers and pretzels made from cauliflower or sweet potato, and all flavours of popcorn.

Naturipe Farms’ fresh-fruit line of Naturipe Snacks is ideal for adding to lunchboxes, or as an on-the-go healthy treat, according to Steven Ware, the company’s vice-president of value-added fresh. Each cup holds five ounces of fresh-fruit combinations, such as blueberries, grapes and apples, and includes a built-in spork to make it easier for little hands. The company also offers a line of snack boxes “that pair fresh fruit with specialty cheese and seasoned nuts in one portable package,” says Ware. “These snack boxes nourish and satisfy with protein, fibre, vitamin C and calcium, with no preparation time required.”

Protein is another attribute parents are looking for in school snacks and lunch items. “When we talk about protein, we mean that consumers are looking for the benefits that protein provides,” explains Perrotta. “For parents, that’s the comfort of knowing that their children’s tummies are full, and that they are energized throughout the day.” However, she adds, pre-packaged meat now comprises just 5% of all kids’ carried-from-home lunches, “so people are looking for protein alternatives.”

Dairy is still a favourite for parents, who are familiar with the vitamins, calcium and protein dairy products provide. Portion control and portability are a must in this category, which means there’s a market for fun, dippable or drinkable packages like tubes for yogurt, and pre-cubed, ready-to-eat formats of cheese. “Yogurt and cheeses under the nanö brand are a perfect solution for parents,” says Véronique Boileau, vice-president of communications for Agropur Dairy Cooperative. Nanö is part of Agropur’s iÖGO family of products, all of which are free from gelatin and artificial colours and flavours.

The brand’s current top-selling yogurts for children include nanö drinkable yogurt and nanö yogurt with no refined sugar added. It will soon launch its drinkable yogurt in a 40% less sugar version, as well as a limited-edition cherry flavour. “Because convenient snacking is a major trend for children, nanö is also adding a new exciting cheese product—a 100% mozzarella cheese to unroll, a first in the Canadian market,” says Boileau.

While granola bars are still on Ipsos Marketing’s list of top 10 items carried from home for school lunches and snacks, formulations have changed considerably, and bars are now packed with nutrients and protein. For example, says McArthur, popular protein bar brands like RXBAR and LÄRABAR have already introduced kid-specific bars “featuring the attributes parents are looking for.” In Calgary, Tully sees oat squares over-taking granola bars, while at Summerhill Market, McMullen says Mid-Day Squares (made with organic, vegan and raw superfood ingredients) are currently hot sellers at her store.

Where do cookies and other “less- healthy” treats fare during back-to-school season? “Sales are going to pick up on cookies and all that stuff, that’s never going to go away,” says Tully, although he believes parents are keeping cookies as an at-home or on-the-go treat. Perrotta agrees less-than-nutritious treats will still find a market. “We always have to ask ‘What is the job that parents are buying a product for?’” she says. “In some cases it’s as a treat component in the school lunch that’s a reward for eating the rest of the nutritionally balanced meal. But other times it’s a reward that lives in your pantry, your car or even in your purse as a secret weapon for a quick energy fill, or just to have a moment of quiet.”

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’June/July issue.

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