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As a working mother in 1995, Fran Lent was busy but reluctant to buy prepackaged frozen meals for Hannah and Bradley, now both 6.

"There wasn't a healthy alternative," she says.

There is now.

With $130,000 in seed money, the 42-year-old former Del Monte Foods marketing executive created Fran's Healthy Helpings, and proudly boasts its "run by moms."

After founding the company four years ago she made her way into 30 California stores-"That's stores, not chains," she says-but now boasts limited distribution in 3,000 outlets in seven states.

Her line of sweetly named meals-including Lucky Ducky Chicken and Soccer-oni & Cheese-can be found in major retail chains such as Lucky Stores, King's Supermarkets, Kroger Co. and Jewel Food Stores.

While it earns less than $1 million in sales and has only five employees, Fran's is still a rare success story in a competitive category.

"The most important thing is believing in the idea," says Ms. Lent, whose commitment has never wavered.

Moreover, she's created a support network of friends and acquaintances who are believers, too. They hooked her up with a package design, research & development resources and sources of venture capital.

"The Lone Ranger approach doesn't work," laughs Ms. Lent.

Fran's is embarking on its first marketing program via Bridges Marketing Group, Walnut Creek, Calif. The effort includes a direct-mail back-to-school campaign and sponsorship of registered dietitian seminars for moms at Gymboree retail stores.

And, thinking big, she says, "I think we can expand to older ages.

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