A School Nutrition Experiment: Junk Food Carrots

Will cool packaging, Facebook, and TV ads get kids to pick veggies over chips?

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I drag myself out of bed and to the gym every morning. I'll choose a piece of fruit over chocolate cake, if not cheerfully. But I wasn't always so health-conscious. When I was a student at Fayetteville-Manlius High School not that long ago, lunch was often a $1 pint of chocolate milk from the cafeteria vending machine. On the way to soccer games I'd grab a Rice Krispies Treat or a bag of Skittles from the cafeteria store for the bus ride. So when I heard that my Syracuse, N.Y., alma mater was one of two high schools in the country to test-market baby carrots from a vending machine, my interest was piqued. Would kids really drop in two quarters and pass up the Doritos and candy in favor of a 3-ounce bag of veggies?

F-M, as everybody calls it, and Mason High School in Cincinnati are the designated launch sites for the first phase of a proposed $25 million "Eat 'Em Like Junk Food" campaign intended to give baby carrots a big bite out of vending-machine sales. Facebook and Twitter pages have been created, a video game has rolled out, and a commercial featuring a busty redhead lusting after "baby carrots, baby" is airing in both cities. But the real grab-the-customer hook is the junk-food packaging—crinkly, eye-catching, Doritos-type bags.

[Better School Nutrition: Is a Healthful School Lunch Just a Nudge Away?]

"We want people to consider baby carrots a regular snack," Bolthouse Farms CEO Jeffrey Dunn, the force behind the campaign, told the Syracuse Post-Standard at the unveiling of F-M's carrot vending machine. Headquartered in Bakersfield, Calif., Bolthouse owns fully half of the baby carrot market. "[We] thought we'd use some of the emotional imagery the junk food industry uses and take a page out of their book."

And why not? A study published last month in the journal Pediatrics found that presented with samples of graham crackers, gummy fruit snacks, and baby carrots, 50 percent of 4- to 6-year-olds said that any of the foods from a package adorned with a cartoon tasted better than the same food out of a plain package. But would the same trick work on a tougher crowd of marketing-savvy high-schoolers at my old stomping ground?

Apparently so. The carrot-stocked vending machine was wheeled into the F-M cafeteria on September 16, a Thursday. By the end of classes the next day it was empty. It was refilled, and sold out again by the following Tuesday.

But when I called a few days ago to check out the carrot campaign, I found that the coolness factor had worn off quickly. The 216-bag tally in the first three days faded to a total of 424 bags over the next three weeks. "When they first came out a lot of people would buy them just to say they bought them and to have the package," junior Chris Warren told me. "Now I see a few bags here and there—not a whole lot." There was a fundamental problem, said sophomore Kelsey Marano: "Trying to hide a vegetable in a fake potato chip bag isn't going to make kids forget what they're tasting."

It's much the same in Cincinnati. Mason is about twice as big as F-M and junk-food machines are barred, so the carrots don't have to go head to head with alluring munchies. Mason students also are flogging sales with three of their own competing carrot-boosting campaigns. Yet Mason's bottom line—about 700 bags—is only marginally higher than F-M's results.

[Getting Kids to Eat Their Vegetables]

Christina Roberto, the lead author of the Pediatrics study and a Ph.D candidate in clinical psychology and public health at Yale University, isn't surprised. In the study, the enticement of cartoon characters counted the least with baby carrots. "For healthy foods, branding seems to not have as strong an effect," Roberto says. "Instead of trying to promote healthy food with junk food tactics, we're better off focusing our efforts on removing cartoons from the packages of those not-so-good for you foods."

Debbie Ritter, F-M's food services manager, is happy that students have decided on their own to buy 650-some bags of carrots so far, but she expects the buttons to be pushed less and less often as the novelty completely vanishes. That left me wondering whether it is even possible to turn a healthy novelty into a healthy habit in a high-school setting. Since my graduation, F-M has added low-fat cheese, whole-wheat bread, and many other good-for-you items to its cafeteria menu. But when a baby carrot machine sits a few feet from the snack shop that doles out nachos and soft pretzels and snuggles up to a machine dispensing chips and cookies after school, can we kids be expected to opt for the veggies?