Feature article

Healthy Choice launches revamped recipes in new fiber bowl for frozen aisle

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Conagra and fiber bowl supplier, Footprint, worked for three years to overcome numerous obstacles. But top management’s faith in the venture never wavered.

Originally launched in 1989, the Healthy Choice brand offered heart-healthy, low-fat, low-salt frozen offerings for the health and fitness consumer.

Not only did Healthy Choice recently revamp or “modernize” their recipes last year to make them more relevant for today’s consumers’ changing palates but they also replaced the plastic bowl with a proprietary fiber bowl made from plant-based material that is completely compostable and recyclable.

Conagra now positions the power bowl brand as food with a purpose—good for you and the planet.

More than 640 tons of plastic were eliminated in 2018, all without a single modification to Conagra’s packaging lines.  The fiber bowl is a drop-in replacement for the plastic bowl.  Nothing could be changed.

“We had been looking for a plastic alternative in the frozen segment for years,” says David France, packaging research fellow, Conagra Brands, “but we never saw anything close to the performance we needed.”

France’s remarks came during a presentation at the Smithers Pira event, “Sustainability in Packaging U.S. 2019,” held in Chicago March 4-6. 

France presented alongside Jeff Bassett, vice president marketing, Footprint, maker of the fiber bowls. The journey was not easy, but Conagra saw the writing on the wall with recent trends in Europe where consumers refuse to microwave, or even eat from, a plastic bowl.

The timing was right, but the “skunk works” team would try and fail for three years.  “We took some really big steps backwards,” says Bassett.

“We brought some things to the manufacturing floor that failed miserably,” says France.

Others might have given up, not willing to take the risk.  But the stars were in alignment as Conagra welcomed a new CEO and some other key top management changes and the new management team shared the vision of what the brand needed to be.

Consumers had become hyper-aware of what single-use plastic is doing to the planet at the same time the new bowl launched to a lot of fanfare.  The packaging clearly calls out the plant-based bowl.  The small team of five or six from both Conagra and Footprint was nimble and applied persistent problem solving to every roadblock.

Most importantly, the team was not hampered by a lack of organizational risk tolerance.  “You can’t wait for perfect,” says France, “you have to be prepared for good enough.”

The fiber bowl falls short on one performance characteristic -- shelf life.  But the supply chain was vetted and it was determined this change would be acceptable.  Sales are $100 million in the first year and Conagra has hit with the younger target demographic, so the efforts have paid off.

“The fiber bowl was more expensive but worth it,” says France.  “We can see a day when fiber will be cheaper than plastic,” says Bassett.

Bassett says, “David France likes to say the bowl brings the customer in for the first purchase, but the new flavors bring them back.

“The fiber bowl is a great disruptor in the frozen space."

More importantly, Conagra is a big company, and Healthy Choice a huge brand.  The success of this project energized the rest of the organization and sustainability efforts have mushroomed.

“You will be seeing a lot more from us, meaningful change, in the future,” says France.  

 

 

 

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