Carrots for sale

Most people know by now that baby-cut carrots are not “babies” at all. They’re the genius brainchild of a farmer tired of tossing out perfectly tasty full-grown veg that were misshapen or not quite grocery store grade, so he whittled them down and sold them as “babies”—cute and easy to eat (or something like that).  The rest is marketing history.

Or at least it’s phase one of marketing history. Carrot farmers have come up with a new way to sell their “babies.” Packaged using junk food style bags, they’re being sold in carrot-only vending machines in two pilot projects—one in Ohio, another in New York state—as well as other places you buy food.

While I’m all for kids eating more carrots (or other veggies), I have to say—at the risk of sounding curmudgeonly—there’s something a bit off about this “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” ploy.

For one thing, as The New York Times points out, the marketing budget for these carrots is something like $25 million, whereas junk food marketing in general is in the billions. Will carrots—even in those fancy bags—be able to compete? It’s hardly a level playing field.

But I also wonder about the long-term efficacy of an approach that seems to be about fooling kids into eating healthily. It’s like those cookbooks that tell you to sneak black beans (or whatever) into your kids’ chocolate chip cookies—short term gain for long term nothing.

Kids are smart. Even little ones can appreciate the importance of food as fuel for their minds and bodies. Healthy food is good fuel—lasts longer, runs cleaner. Junk food, while okay as a treat, doesn’t keep your body running as well. Who wants to be tired and sick? And older children absolutely understand when they’re being manipulated—and like anyone, they don’t like it much.

I think adults should respect kids more when it comes to talking to them about food (and in lots of other ways, frankly). They don’t need to be tricked, they need to be engaged. Getting children involved having fun and getting their hands dirty—in gardens, cooking classes, visits to farms and food celebrations—has been shown over and over to change kids’ eating and approach to food in positive and long-lasting ways.

Of course, if the baby carrot campaign gets more kids eating carrots instead of chips, I suppose parents, educators and food activists should be pleased, but I can’t help but think that if the medium is the message, the message is a strange and skewed one.

The tag line for the baby carrots’ marketing is: “Eat ’em like junk food.”  Is that truly what we want? Junk food gobbling as the gold standard for food consumption and enjoyment?

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