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Produce for Kids celebrates 10th year of giving back

by Chip Carter | October 13, 2010
Ten years ago, John Shuman of Shuman Produce Inc. in Reidsville, GA, had an idea for a promotional campaign that would bring much-needed funding to children's hospitals and also help him sell more Vidalia onions that season.

Mr. Shuman had no idea that a decade later he would be celebrating the 10th anniversary of Produce for Kids, a program that has raised more than $3 million for the Children’s Miracle Network of 170 hospitals and for PBS Kids educational campaigns simply through the sale of produce.

When Mr. Shuman’s now-10-year-old son was an infant, he contracted a virus that led to hospitalization. While the infection was not serious, the visit to the Children’s Miracle Network hospital in Savannah, GA, was an eye- opener.

"I found out the Children’s Miracle Network doesn’t own these hospitals, but is a fundraising organization to support them. These hospitals treat children regardless of their parents’ ability to pay," Mr. Shuman said. “A lot of grocery retailers were doing support locally for CMN, a lot of store-centered stuff, but there really wasn’t anything going on in the produce industry.”

In 2001, Mr. Shuman called Orlando, FL-based marketer Heidi McIntyre and told her he wanted to launch a promotional campaign that would help support Children’s Miracle Network and move more Vidalia onions during the upcoming season.

“It was really meant to be a marketing campaign for the produce department,” Ms. McIntyre said. “We talked about bringing the produce industry together to create this. It was really just meant to be a short campaign and over the year it just grew.”

The first PFK promotion got underway in retail produce departments in spring 2001, in time for the Children’s Miracle Network annual telethon in June. Once the initial campaign passed, though, sponsors started contacting Ms. McIntyre about participating in a fall program — which did not exist at the time.

With spring dedicated to raising money for Children’s Miracle Network, “We decided [fall] was really a great opportunity to educate kids about healthy eating,” she said. “Four years ago we partnered with PBS Kids — at that time they had decided they really wanted to put a huge focus on fighting childhood obesity. It was a good win-win partnership.”

PFK has been based on and thrives because of win-win partnerships. There are now 45 corporate sponsors — all from the produce industry — in 20 states.

“Everybody’s got a reason to be a part of it and everybody’s got a win-win situation,” Mr. Shuman said. “The retailers’ benefit is community outreach and tons of free publicity and a venue to promote the entire produce department. The sponsors get incremental sales boosts, salable positioning, move additional volume and get to give back to the communities that have supported our products for so long. And all money stays local. If we’re at Publix raising money in Atlanta that money stays in Atlanta; in Miami, it all stays in Miami. So by participating, you are really making an impact locally.”

“It’s really been inspiring for John and myself — when we first started we didn’t anticipate it would take off the way it has,” Ms. McIntyre said. “Retailers have come to really embrace it as their own grassroots community campaign. The message to consumers is, this is supporting your local hospital — it’s really tied into the local community.”

With PFK firmly established, its principals are now looking at the next 10 years. A new merchandising program called “Ideal Meals” will launch soon with a focus on helping parents motivate children to make healthy food choices.

Said Mr. Shuman, “We don’t have the budget that McDonald’s has so we have to come up with creative ways to reach out and target our consumer. We are the gatekeepers of healthy fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s our due diligence as an industry, almost our fiduciary duty, to go out and educate and teach and make people aware of what we’re doing.”

Added Ms. McIntyre, “It’s really exciting to see the sort of evolution in the country and the focus on healthy eating. It’s really a wonderful opportunity. We’re seeking to become a resource, to respond and react to what consumers are asking for — a big chunk of our audience is parents, moms especially, and families. What are they struggling with, what would they like to see us do?”

Among the numerous accomplishments the PFK program can list, one may be more noticeable than the rest: After four years of exposure to PFK, PBS’ famed Cookie Monster from the landmark television series “Sesame Street” very rarely eats cookies these days, preferring to chomp on broccoli for regular snacking and saving his favorite treat for special occasions.

Mr. Shuman understandably is not a regular “Sesame Street” viewer, so Cookie Monster’s redemption came as news to him.

“Really?” he asked when told. “That’s incredible. That is really amazing. I never dreamed [PFK] would turn into an organization all on its own, nor would I dream it would have been so successful. That success proves how committed and educated the produce industry is to giving back to the community that has supported us for so long. And it shows you how welcoming the produce industry is — they wrapped their arms around PFK and embraced and supported it and the dollars are there to show it, and it shows that it’s here to stay.”

Dozens of hospitals and thousands of children have benefited from Mr. Shuman’s original idea.

Said Mr. Shuman, “I’ve had the opportunity to tour several of these children’s hospitals — it’ll change the way you think about things. These kids are in there because they are fighting a lot of battles we’ve been blessed to not have to fight. You come out with a different perspective. My son inspired the program — if it hadn’t been for that trip to Savannah, I don’t think we would’ve recognized [Children’s Miracle Network] and been inspired to go down this road. We have been very blessed, beyond what we deserve, and we’re just thankful we’ve had these opportunities and are looking to do more, grow the campaign and hopefully continue to do some good things.”