Retailer just says no to exploiting children

Michele Simon, JD, MPH
Alternatives to marketing to kids at MOM's Organic Market

As the frequent bearer of bad news about the food industry, I am thrilled to share a positive story. Last month, MOM's Organic Market, a small retail chain based in the Baltimore area, announced it would stop carrying products featuring children's cartoon characters:

Products ranging from Dora the Explorer frozen soybeans to Elmo juice boxes will be discontinued and replaced with organic alternatives in cartoon-free packaging.

Company CEO Scott Nash blogged last August about how his young daughter begged for a cereal she never tasted because of "Clifford the Big Red Dog" on the box, putting the store's policy into motion. The company sent me this list of discontinued items, which includes numerous Earth's Best products, along with a few other natural food companies.

While MOM's is a small chain targeting a specific audience, the move is still significant, especially considering the greenwashing many natural and organic companies engage in. MOM’s community outreach representative Laura Holley-Poole told me many food makers were taken by surprise:

Several producers said they thought their products would be OK because they used mostly organic ingredients, or because they chose cartoon characters who had a positive or educational message. But they may be missing how using cartoon characters to target kids doesn't go over too well with a lot of parents who buy their products.

As an example, she pointed to this confused apology from green household products maker Seventh Generation, in the wake of customer outcry over the company's decision to co-brand its diapers with Dr. Seuss' “The Lorax.”

The move is very significant in the current discourse over the ongoing problem of marketing to children.

As I've written before, our federal government has turned its back on this issue so the only place left to demand change is with industry. But food companies are engaging in a massive public relations charade designed to make us believe they are making positive changes.

For example, Kellogg has a new product, Scooby-Doo! That's the actual name of the cereal – Scooby-Doo! – but this is less important than the image on the box. Some think this product is a positive development because it contains “only” six grams of sugar per serving. But it's very likely that Kellogg's motivation was to be eligible for the very lucrative WIC (Women, Infants and Children federal assistance program) market, for which six grams of sugar per serving is the maximum allowed. Kellogg says as much on this community feedback page where it also appears not everyone is so happy with the product, leading Marion Nestle to ponder if the product will last very long.

When I asked MOM's CEO Scott Nash about marketing "healthy food" to children, the answer was simple: "The ends don't justify the means. Marketing to children is wrong, no matter what is being marketed.” He believes marketing to children “should be illegal." I couldn't agree more, and that’s why I support Corporate Accountability International’s ongoing campaign to stop McDonald’s from exploiting children (as opposed to just making “healthier” Happy Meals.) 

Supermarket News described the market’s announcement as "bold" and showing leadership but noted that "MOM’s caters to a specific demographic, so this kind of action wouldn’t float at a mainstream retailer." Still, the article noted "taking a stand is controversial, but it’s empowering; it defines the retailer against the backdrop of everyone else." This is exactly the point: the policy creates a new standard for other retailers to follow. Are you listening Whole Foods CEO John Mackey?

The company also hopes others, such as progressive co-ops and independent retailers, follow its lead. Holley-Poole told me the largest impact would be on product manufacturers in the organic food industry. "I would not be surprised to see many of the discontinued items re-introduced with new cartoon-free packaging in a couple years," she said. Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, praised the new policy:

Using beloved media characters to sell kids on a particular brand of food is wrong, even if it’s healthy food. Children should not be trained to pick foods based on the cartoon on the box. We congratulate MOM’s for taking this courageous stance on behalf of families and urge other companies to follow suit.

I am often asked: who in the food industry is doing it right? I am very happy to finally have an answer to that question.

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