- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 5, 2006

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Mickey Mouse, SpongeBob and the Tasmanian Devil are coming to a produce aisle near you.

The cartoon characters are popping up on fruit and vegetable packaging across the country as growers strike licensing deals with entertainment companies hungry to cultivate positive images among health-conscious parents and children.

Walt Disney Co., with its overwhelming cartoon capital and cultural clout, is the most significant entry in the produce business.

The entertainment giant is licensing characters to Indianapolis produce distributor Imagination Farms LLC, which has deals with 15 large growers across the country to provide fruits and vegetables for the Disney Garden brand.

“We’re doing it predominantly because it is the right thing to do, but secondarily, because it is the right business to be in,” said Harry Dollman, head of food-products licensing for Disney.

“Concerns about the right nutrition for kids is not a fad. It’s not something that will be overtaken by another trend,” he said.

Neither Disney nor Imagination Farms would discuss terms of the deal.

Imagination Farms started shipping the produce in May and has more than 30 Disney Garden items in Albertsons and other supermarket chains, said Matthew Caito, who heads the distributor.

Mr. Caito plans to have 100 produce items on supermarket shelves by January and another 100 by the end of 2007.

“We want to be able to supply an entire produce department with Disney Garden products,” he said.

Already available are peaches with Daisy Duck and Goofy stickers, and table grapes packaged in Mickey and Minnie Mouse boxes. Organic apples with Winnie the Pooh — the mascot for Disney Garden organic selections — are due out sometime in September. Among the other arrivals to the produce aisle are Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants spinach and Dora the Explorer oranges. There are also Tweety Bird grapes and Tasmanian Devil apples, the result of a deal between Ready Pac Produce and Time Warner’s Warner Bros.

The marketing move comes as health professionals issue increasingly dire warnings about the consequences of unhealthy diets among the young.

In 2004, 18.8 percent of children ages 6 to 11 were overweight, up from just 7 percent 20 years earlier, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Craig Ito, who has a 5,000-acre fruit farm in Reedley, Calif., was eager to participate when Imagination Farms approached him. He saw it as a way to lure young customers away from the fast-food diets served up by time-strapped parents.

“The only way for us to grow our markets is to increase the consumption of fresh fruit among kids,” Mr. Ito said.

The children seem to be biting.

He said that sales of peaches, plums and nectarines bearing images of Disney characters have exceeded the amount of unbranded fruit he sold last year for about the same price.

He credits the cartoon characters.

“In the cereal section, you see all kinds of characters,” he said. “In the produce area, it’s kind of humdrum.”

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