Stuart Ballan
Businessman, dad, published author, cyclist

Supermarkets to slow the ‘train of obesity’?

When a healthy salad costs 5 times more than a burger; when checkout counters tempt instant purchases of high sugar and fat confectionary, displayed at the eye level of 3 to 5 year olds;

When your government could help more to fight obesity, but is too busy;

When over a fifth of 4-5 year olds and a third of 10-11 year olds are already overweight or obese; when the World Health Organisation predicts that 75% of men and 63% of women in the UK will be overweight or obese by 2030; when we are bombarded with adverts for sugar-laced treats; when 95% of American parents of overweight, young children believe their kids’ size to be “just right”, and nearly 80% of parents of obese children think the same;

When crying is associated with hunger, and milk becomes the silencer; when exercising the legs, heart and lungs has been replaced by exercising the fingers; when quantity, not quality, drives value; when 36% of clinically obese, UK adults believe they are just overweight; when fast food and fizzy drinks fuel the stomachs of the less financially fortunate; when a tsunami of weight related deaths and related costs are headed our way; when obesity is named as the leading reason young people cannot join the military in some US States; when supermarkets want to improve their health image, but don’t always have a solution; and when overweight pre-school children become overweight school children, and then become overweight adolescents, who’s looking after the kiddies?

Maltesers, Chocolate Buttons or M&M’s?

When my kids were young, it became the norm to negotiate with them in shops. “Choose any one of the three sweet things in your hands”. Eventually, often with tears, sometimes nearly mine, two items limped back to the displays at kids’ eye level. Familiar? Yet, ironically, my “sweet victory” was always letting them choose a sugary item, without thinking about an alternative. “That’s the way it was”. Maybe. Or was it just that “obesity” was a less common word then, smartphones hadn’t been invented yet, and kids could still kick a ball with their feet, rather than their fingertips?

Who Invented Vegetables?

I started writing and publishing children’s books to simply bring a smile to the faces of children, and maybe even to their parents. I wrote in English, my mother tongue, yet published in Hebrew, because I now live in Israel, and that’s the language the vast majority of my young “customers” understand.

Who Invented Vegetables - Best p19 copy

Did you know that 84% of books in the world’s largest book stores sell just 2 copies or less in a year, per branch, and only 2% sell 10 copies or more? Wow. Oh Dear. Ouch!

Wanting to reach more children than the statistics predicted, I thought who else, besides the bookshops, would be interested in “Who Invented Vegetables?”, the first book of my Magic Pen and Paper Series? Who would be interested in the subject of the book? Yes, the supermarkets; the largest buyers and sellers of fresh vegetables in the country.

Above: “Who Invented Vegetables?”, placed in the vegetables section, at Israeli supermarkets.
Above: “Who Invented Vegetables?”, placed in the vegetables section, at Israeli supermarkets.

Several months later, Supersol, one of the largest Israeli supermarkets, placed “Who Invented Vegetables?” between the actual vegetables. It was the closest I’ve ever seen to a miracle, in this holy land!. Onions, carrots, Stuart’s book, nuts, potatoes. The supermarket promoted the book with “Buy 5kg of vegetables, and get the book at a discount”, and 10,000 copies sold in a few weeks. Pro-rata to UK population, it would have been 125,000 copies. Pro-rata to US population, it would have been 600,000 copies. “Awesome”!

90% of kids eating vegetables within 45 minutes

Published books lead to book readings at kindergartens.

Above: Stuart Ballan, author of “Who Invented Vegetables?”, drowning in a sea of happy kids, after a book reading
Above: Stuart Ballan, author of “Who Invented Vegetables?”, drowning in a sea of happy kids, after a book reading

Words cannot express the satisfaction that by the end of a book reading, I could motivate 90% of a class of 4 to 6 year olds to not only be eating vegetables, but also be clambering over me, “begging” for more. Many would be picked up at the end of the day, shocking and delighting their parents by “demanding” they go to the supermarket, to buy vegetables. The mothers loved me, and the fathers “hated” me, because the mothers loved me. And as importantly, I now understood I could positively influence the eating habits of young kids, by my books.

Supermarket chains can make a difference, now

Even though parents have undisputed personal responsibility for the health, values, education, and safety of their own children, if the system targets and feeds their kids sugary, high fat products, can we expect every individual parent to figure out a battle plan, and to beat that system, alone? Without any tools? Without better substitute products? Without even seeing that their children are overweight?

A proven, scalable formula

What started as a simple project in Israel, to maximize my book distribution based on the subject of the book, and to give book readings in kindergartens in order to make kids eat vegetables for the first time, can be replicated on a much larger scale, and in a more sophisticated way, anywhere.

Take Care of the Kiddies - Kgs

Whilst the UK supermarkets aggressively fight for market share, and for some, perhaps survival, as a result of the relatively new price-cutting entrants, and whilst they look for ways to improve their social image for positive contribution to the nation’s health rather than the opposite, there’s a low hanging fruit opportunity knocking on the door.

As a first phase, in partnership with a supermarket chain, start by replicating the proven supermarket formula discussed above, in your country. With an English version of “Who Invented Vegetables?” that can be quickly adjusted to meet local needs, roll out a plan to get as many copies of the book as possible to the parents, whilst encouraging and increasing sales of vegetables. Let the supermarkets add to their bottom lines whilst improving their public health image. And for those who don’t buy the book, by design, everyone is forced to walk past the vegetables section. Consciously, or subconsciously, your customers saw your heath initiative.

Create and roll out a plan for scalable book readings in kindergartens, training available and willing “resources” as required, thereby rapidly increasing the number of kiddies eating vegetables. Complement the books and book readings with related products; colouring books featuring the main characters, “I eat vegetables” stickers, and whatever else our imagination triggers.

And then, do it again

Who Invented Vegetables?” is the first book of the Magic Pen and Paper Series. “Who Invented Colours?” and “Who Invented Numbers? are both ready, with more titles, on the way. “Who Invented fruit?“, “Who Invented Salad?” and “Who Invented Seasons?“; the book series, and therefore the longevity of this project, are limited only by imagination.

Partnering with just one of the major supermarket chains will turn this vision into a national reality; contributing to the future health of our children, and therefore of our future adolescents and adults.

Who’s who in the UK?

When I was a kid, analyzing the supermarket brand market share was about as interesting as watching onions grow, because like the latter, nothing really moved. Yet today, there’s all out war, with new, no-frills entrants driving prices down, shaking the tree of stability, and it’s more than apples that are falling off.

UK Supermarket market share - Q4 2014
UK Supermarket market share – Q4 2014 ‘vs’ Q4 2013

Whilst the brands fight to turn red into black, with only Waitrose, Aldi and Lidl increasing their market share last year, some try to win valid and valuable “points” in the eyes of the public, via health related initiatives, often aimed at children.

Tesco’s Eat Happy Project, in partnership with the Children’s Food Trust‘s “Let’s Get Cooking” programme, which effectively teaches kids to cook, is exemplary. Sainsbury’s Active Kids scheme, fronted by ambassadors David Beckham and Ellie Simmonds, is a massive statement and initiative. After that, Google from any angle, and it’s not easy to find comparable initiatives from the other competing supermarket chains.

Maybe this “Look after the Kiddies and the Kgs (kilograms) will look after themselves” initiative compliments the massive programmes of the big boys, by targeting the younger age group? Or maybe it’s a quick way-in to building a health related brand by those supermarkets who seem to limit their creativity by calorie/energy charts on their websites, which is about as interesting and valuable as what you read on the box when eating your corn flakes? Or is there a surprise in the shadows, with one of the 2 German conglomerates, seemingly propping up the UK chart above, but with massive International reach of about 20 countries?

I’m excited that just 2 weeks after launching this “Take care of the Kiddies and the Kgs will look after themselves” initiative, I’m seeing organic progress, the details of which are perhaps for a future article.

The train of obesity

That light at the end of the tunnel you can see is the train of obesity, coming towards you. We can all see it if we choose to; we just need to look. After all, by definition, it’s both physically and statistically big; very big. But are we thinking about it? Are we worried about it? Are we planning to slow it down, or to stop it? Or has life become a train crash, waiting to happen?

Take Care of the Kiddies and the Kgs will look after themselves” is a win, win, win, win opportunity, for all stakeholders. It’s the brakes on the train of obesity.

And when I die …

I would understand some readers concluding “he just wants to sell books”. If, when I die, I look up at my gravestone, and it says “he made young children smile and healthier”, you will see my smile, one last time.

Follow on Twitter at @WhoInventedVeg, #WhoInventedVegetables, or

About the Author
Originally from England, Stuart Ballan moved to Israel in 1997. He has over 25 years business and B2B sales experience working in companies of every size, including his own. Stuart holds an MBA from the Kellogg-Recanati Executive MBA program and was the President of the Kellogg-Recanati Alumni Club from 2002 to 2012. He's dad to 2 great adult kids, and is the author of 2 children's books, with his first book selling 10,000 copies, here in Israel. He's also a keen off-road cyclist.
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