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Stores Use Fresh Produce to Lure Shoppers

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CHICAGO (AP) _ Eat more fruits and vegetables. Mom says it. Uncle Sam, too. Yet people still do not get enough _ and the government just doubled the recommended amount. Trying to entice shoppers, produce companies are putting freshly sliced fruit into fun packages for kids and packaging carrot and celery sticks to fit in a car cup-holder. Some on the new lines are on display at the Food Marketing Institute show, the supermarket industry's annual convention.

Sunkist's Fun Fruits are sliced oranges, apples or pineapples, or red grapes with no stems, available in half-cup serving packages that have pictures of kids on them. The products will be in supermarkets this year; Sunkist is working on a version for grown-ups.

``The kids love them. They open them up just like they would a package of potato chips, but there's no fat in them, and it's all healthy,'' said Rick Harris, general manager of Sunkist's value-added division. ``Everyone's talking about superfoods. This is like the super-snack food.''

Younger children have trouble peeling or eating whole fruit by themselves, said Helen Mont-Ferguson, the nutrition director for Boston's public schools, which is one of the many school districts that have tried Fun Fruits.

It is a monumental task for cafeteria staff to peel and cut enough fruit, she said. ``In our central kitchen, it took two days for us to section enough oranges for 18,000 kids,'' Mont-Ferguson said.

The convenience of having a sliced, washed, ready-to-eat snack is what many adults and kids are looking for in any food. That is why grab-and-go containers _ soups or other foods _ have become so popular.

People have not found as much convenience in the produce department.

Consumer research shows that the average person eats 1.8 cups of fruits and vegetables a day, according to the nonprofit Produce for Better Health Foundation. That total is less than half the amount recommended in the government's new food pyramid, which says the average person should consume about 5 cups of fruits and vegetables a day.

Now the question is whether people will try to follow that advice or just give up, said Ellie Krieger, a dietitian and author.

``For many people, they feel like that's an overwhelming amount to consume in a day,'' Krieger said. ``Let's break it down, just up it by 2 a day, take it in incremental steps. People don't realize it doesn't have to be all or nothing.''

A big part of the challenge is that produce is not widely available where some are most likely to buy it _ in a fast-food restaurant or vending machine.

``It's more than just peeling an orange _ it's having it there when you're hungry at 3 o'clock in the afternoon and forgot to bring anything from home,'' said Dr. Elizabeth Pivonka, a dietitian and president of the foundation. The group helps run the ``5 A Day for Better Health'' program, a public service campaign aimed at getting people to eat more produce.

New 8-ounce grab-and-go cups of water-packed carrots and celery made by Irwindale, Calif.-based Ready Pac will appear in grocery stores this summer. Del Monte makes grab-and-go cups of fresh-cut fruit that are sold in convenience stores.

It's a huge market that keeps growing, said Kirk Teske, Del Monte's central region sales director.

``Everybody wants to get into this stuff,'' Teske said. ``It's just multiplied like crazy, and it'll get bigger.''

Ready Pac is also selling ready-to-go ``bistro'' salad bowls _ Cobb salad, chicken caesar, blue cheese. They keep meat and other protein separate from greens, come with a fork and dressing and are ready to tuck into a lunch sack. The company is testing the salad in some Papa John's pizza chain restaurants.

Produce is not as cheap to prepare and package as other foods. An apple or cherry or strawberry is still hand-picked; labor can account for half the cost of fruit. Vegetables and fruit are commodities that do not stay fresh for long.

Produce companies say demand will help lower the cost. Fun Fruits will sell for 50 cents to a dollar, Harris said. The bistro salad is selling for about $3.50 per bowl, Dickstein said. And Del Monte's 8-ounce fruit cups sell for about $2.19, Teske said.
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