2/3/2016 – MISSOULA, MT Three locally owned Missoula grocery stores are doing their part to fight childhood obesity – and help parents avoid shopping with hungry youngsters – by giving out free fruit as an alternative to junk food or candy.
The Orange Street Food Farm and the two Missoula Fresh Market locations – on South Reserve Street and West Broadway – have started a program to give away a free banana or other type of fruit to children 12 and younger who are accompanying their parents while shopping.
Craig Holtet, who purchased the three stores with business partner Ron Ramsbacher last year, said the program has been in the works for a long time and is now official.
“We’ve always done it to a point,” he said. “I’ve always thought it’s great to have kids, and it’s great if they want some fruit for a snack while they walk around the store. The fruit is good for kids. We really want to push the fact that there’s really good snacks for kids at a grocery store.”
The program will run indefinitely at all three stores, with a sign and a bin of fruit in the produce section.
In the first few hours the program was in place at the Food Farm, a dozen children riding in shopping carts happily peeled free bananas.
Vanessa Hendrix, the store manager at the Food Farm, said she wanted to make the program official after a customer shared a Facebook photo from an Ohio store that promotes healthy eating habits in kids by giving away free fruit.
“A lot of grocery stores around the country do it, but one of our great customers – they’re all great – went on our Facebook page and shared that post,” she said. “We decided to run with it and see what happens.”
Hendrix said health department regulations prevent the store from handing unwashed apples and other fruits that need to be washed to kids, so they have settled on bananas for now.
“But if they want something else the parents just have to ask, so if they want a pear, great,” she said. “And that’s great for us because it encourages that dialogue between our employees and the customers, our guests at the store.”
Hendrix said giving kids snacks helps parents, too, because nobody wants hungry and upset kids while they shop.
“I have kids, and anyone who has brought a toddler shopping with them has probably been given a banana or a cheese stick or Goldfish because toddlers are irrational human beings and sometimes they want what they want,” she said. “So in order to make mothers’ lives easier, grocers have for years said, ‘Hey, here’s a banana, here’s an apple.’ And it quiets them down and makes them more patient, and mom can finish shopping and everybody’s happy. There’s way more value than cost in that.”
She added that the Food Farm used to hand out cookies, but the awareness of the benefits of healthy eating habits in children has spread.
“Banks used to give out suckers, and now a lot of them give out stickers,” Hendrix said.
Holtet said both he and Ramsbacher, and many employees at the stores, have children.
“We understand the battles we, as parents, are facing,” he said. “So we all care about kids, too. Any way we can have a positive influence in the community, that’s what we’re trying to do with these stores.”
Holtet said he and Ramsbacher have made it a point since buying the stores to initiate a variety of programs that benefit the community and employees.
For example, Holtet is helping organize fat tire bike races at Marshall Mountain this weekend, and the company has offered ski trips and whitewater rafting days for employees – all things a locally owned, independent store is able to do.
“We do a lot of engagement, and the community is starting to get our personality,” he said. “Those are things some of the bigger guys can’t do. We get to have fun with everybody.”