Schools get the food message

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School foodservice directors are a new marketing target, as food companies, under fire from government and parents in the child obesity debate, look to position themselves as providers of healthier products.

"There has definitely been more interest from [food] companies in working with our members recently," says Erik Peterson, a spokesman for the American School Food Service Association, whose mission is to help provide healthful options for kids in schools.

PepsiCo signed on last spring as a sponsor of a fitness program to help school lunch servers lose weight and become better role models. The sponsorship allows PepsiCo to put its healthier portfolio, including Aquafina water, baked versions of Frito-Lay chips and Tropicana beverages, in front of those who decide what goes into school vending machines.

Kraft Foods recently signed for the first time as a "patron," Mr. Peterson says. This opens the door for similar sponsorships from the leading food marketer. Others also have developed products or programs designed around providing healthier school food choices.

Roughly 25 states this year have introduced legislation looking to limit the items in school vending machines, or aimed at monitoring what goes into the machines, Mr. Peterson says. Though most of those bills have been defeated in the face of major opposition, the trend nationally is definitely toward healthier products, he notes.

"We have definitely increased our visibility and the value of our relationship with [foodservice] administrators to help them understand how our portfolio of choices can meet their needs to provide healthier products," says Mark Dollins, a PepsiCo spokesman. Healthier options, dubbed "Wellward Choices," are featured on PepsiCo's Web site under a "Health is Power" link for foodservice directors. The items are highlighted on a PepsiCo-sponsored ASFSA Wellness site.

improved snacks

PepsiCo is starting a pilot project with Dallas schools that will offer three kinds of vending machines-one will feature "better-for-you" Frito-Lay and Quaker snacks, another Gatorade beverages and a third SoBe drinks including SoBe Synergy, a low-calorie, vitamin-fortified 50% juice product launched last year solely for school vending.

Coca-Cola Co. has developed its own school vending option, a vitamin-enhanced, flavored milk beverage dubbed Swerve that joins its Minute Maid, Powerade and Dasani brands as healthier school options. Critics have questioned the healthiness of Swerve, however, due to high calories and sodium levels.

"Those [milk-based drinks by Coca-Cola] are a beverage alternative to Coke, but they're not going to contain the nutritional profile of milk," says Regan Jones, a dietitian and spokeswoman for the National Dairy Council. The council has been working toward making 100% milk a school vending option.

Kraft recently launched in retail its first 100% juice, Capri Sun Fruit Waves, which could be offered in vending machines. Kraft's vending group is in the process of finalizing new criteria for in-school vending as part of a focus on health for kids.

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