The hope among many fresh-cut produce processors, distributors and retailers is that youth will lead the way to more sales.

That means changing their snacking habits, marketers say.

And it often will begin in the schools.

In February 2010, the United Fresh Produce Association Foundation, Washington, D.C., unveiled its Salad Bar in Every School campaign, a multiyear public-health commitment from the fresh produce industry designed to bring fruit and vegetable salad bars to schools across America.

“One of our big missions is a salad bar in every school,” said Jeff Oberman, the United Fresh’s Salinas, Calif.-based liaison for the fresh-cut processor board, and vice president of membership and trade relations. “The health messages out there in the international media are consumers are looking for a healthy alternative when they’re snacking. Snacking is one of the biggest meal platforms of the day.”

Schools are fertile ground for fresh-cut produce, said Jim Richter, Overland Park, Kan.-based executive vice president of sales and marketing for Rexburg, Idaho-based Wilcox Fresh.

“School lunches are another growth engine for those types of items,” Richter said. “If it ends up in the kid’s lunchbox, then it’s going to become more commonplace, and then moms and dads will start to look for that when they’re shopping for their children. So that’s another way you’re going to see that break through.”

Some growers and shippers, such as Oviedo, Fla.-based Duda Farm Fresh Foods Inc., have developed snack items targeted specifically at children.

Bill Munger, fresh-cut sales director at Duda, said his company has developed proprietary varieties that appeal to young snackers.

“The variety that we use for our celery sticks and our snack items are designed to have a more mild celery flavor, sweeter. There’s less string and it’s a little juicier to eat,” he said. “Kids seem to prefer our celery variety to the off-the-shelf commercial variety. We’re fortunate to have that as a selling point. That’s how we market it.”

Cashmere, Wash.-based Crunch Pak has partnered with Disney for several years and offers apple slices under the Disney Garden label. It’s Disney-tied Foodles lineup packages apples and raisins with peanut butter; apples with cheese and caramel; apples with cheese and grapes; and apples with cheese and pretzels. The company has seven cut-fruit items in its Snackers line.

Crunch Pak also reaches into the fast-food arena with bags of cut fruit available at Burger King restaurants.

“Maybe it starts in foodservice and works through retail, what kids are getting at theme parks and other places,” said Steve Kenfield, vice president of sales and marketing for Kingsburg, Calif.-based HMC Group Marketing Inc. “It’s in how QSRs (quick-service restaurants) are improving the quality of their side items. I think it’s an evolution and not revolution.”

The process is slow, but various private and government entities are working together to bring more nutritious snack options to children, Kenfield said.

“Some stuff happening with USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) in schools with double servings in produce and fruit is going to create awareness with kids where these items are available. The kids see similar items in the store. We think that’s going to lead to the acceleration of the adoption of snack produce.”

The development template is already there, and it works, Kenfield said.

“It’s the same thing you saw in early days of precut lettuce,” he said. “The consumers are all about convenience but won’t trade off quality or eating experience for convenience. They won’t fall in love with disappointing snack produce, no matter how healthy they may be.”

He said fruit has a natural lure to kids.

“I think cut fruit’s probably got a bigger opportunity,” he said. “Grapes are eaten as a snack. Fruit in its basic form is far more typical as a snack item. All we’re really doing is advancing the portability of what is already a snack item.”

Items found in institutional or foodservice venues make their way onto retail shelves, and the growth continues, marketers say.

“We have snack packs that include a miniature juice and a selection of fruits all packaged and ready to go,” said Maria Brous, spokeswoman for Publix Super Markets Inc., Lakeland, Fla. “In addition, we carry snack packs of items such as carrots and dipping sauce, and apples and caramel sauce. All convenient items that fit well into any lunchbox.”

Ed Odron, president of Odron Produce Marketing & Consulting, Stockton, Calif., said fresh-cut apples in snack bags have done particularly well at retail.

“Quality is very good and they have figured out how to get some shelf life to the product,” he said. “It’s a great item for the lunch bag and just snacking. Cut and ready, and it tastes good.”

Darvel Kirby, business development director for United Supermarkets LLC, Lubbock, Texas, said the category is faring well in general terms.

“Sales in this category continue to grow, although not with any particular item,” he said.