An idea of Statesboro native Wendy Brannen's in her role with the U.S. Apple Association has children and adults from Savannah to Seattle posting pictures of their smiling selves with apples and apple products as schools and organizations compete for food industry-funded grants.
It's not the first time that Brannen has scored national publicity for a food crop. In her previous job as the Vidalia Onion Committee's executive director, she got Shrek to serve as the poster ogre for Georgia's state vegetable.
"You know I've got those Statesboro-Bulloch County roots, and so I enjoy working for farmers," Brannen said in a phone interview. "In fact, I just got back. I've been out in Washington state visiting all the apple growers out that way for the past week."
As the Apple Association's consumer health and public relations director, Brannen's office is in a suburb of Washington, D.C., so a trip to that other Washington, the top apple-producing state, takes her clear across the country.
The headquarters is positioned at the nation's capital because the association lobbies on apple farmers' concerns, such as immigration reform and the Farm Bill, she said. That is not part of Brannen's job, but she does serve as crisis communications chief on issues such as food safety.
Apple farmers are much like Vidalia onion growers in being easy to talk to and appreciative of her efforts, she said. But obviously, there are more apple growers in more places.
Defined in state law and federal regulations, the Vidalia onion region consists of 13 Georgia counties and parts of seven others, and there are about 100 registered growers. The U.S. Apple Association represents about 7,500 apple growers, packers and product manufacturers, and includes about 40 state and regional associations.
Concentrated in the northern part of the state, Georgia apple production is almost completely for the fresh market, often through roadside stands. But consumers are everywhere.
Langston Chapel competes
A Statesboro school, Langston Chapel Elementary, is competing in the Apples4Ed program. Brannen noted that she attended Langston Chapel's predecessor, Marvin Pittman Laboratory School, but added that she was not biased. A committee reviewed the entries and selected the participating projects.
"But by the same token, I'm super excited that some of my friends passed along the information to area teachers there and that Langston Chapel is in the running," she said.
Brannen has a degree in finance from the University of Georgia and a degree in communications from the University of North Florida. She worked in TV news, as a reporter and anchor, in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi.
A desire to be near home again, she said, prompted her to take the Vidalia Onion Committee job in July 2005.
"I loved every minute in that job....," Brannen said. "The Vidalia growers and community were so good to me."
So she stayed to see another sweet onion marketing season begin before taking the apple producers up on their offer in April 2013.
The Shrek deal
Her Onion Committee tenure included helping establish and open the Vidalia Onion Museum.
But what garnered a Wall Street Journal story and an ABC News interview was the co-promotion deal she put together with DreamWorks Animation. In the original Shrek movie, the animated ogre had said that onions are like ogres because both have layers.
When DreamWorks promoted the fourth and so-far final Shrek movie, the 3-D "Shrek Forever After," in 2010, Vidalia onion growers and packers, as a group, were able to use the image of Shrek in all their marketing and outreach.
"We always harvested in April and May, the springtime, into the early summer, and that married perfectly with the movie release," Brannen recalls. "I was able to build a campaign both in-store and public relations, social media, some in-school outreach, all centered on Shrek and the connection between ogres and onions."
Media reports focused on how the campaign had children asking their parents to buy onions and would eat those from bags with Shrek on them.
There's no lovable animated misfit starring in the Apples4Ed "Buy an Apple, Help a Student" campaign. But Brannen recruited a coalition of "Apple Buddies," manufacturers of food products that can be paired with apples, to back a plan for funding educational projects. The companies are Marzetti, which makes a caramel dip; KIND Snacks; Roth Cheese and Johnsonville Sausage.
No funding amount has been announced in advance, but 11 schools and organizations are competing for shares. They include the Washington Apple Education Foundation; Katie's Krops, which encourages schools nationwide to start vegetable gardens; and school districts and individual schools in Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, and again, Washington.
Langston Chapel Elementary School has two separate projects.
One, called Boosting Creativity with iPads, would provide a set of 18 mini iPads to be used by reading students in the fifth grade. It was proposed by fifth-grade teacher Melanie Kirby.
The other project, the LCES Playground Makeover, led by pre-kindergarten teacher Katie Jasionowski, seeks funding for shade, mulch and new equipment for the school's playground. The goal is $3,000 to $20,000, a wide range, as the school will use whatever help it can get, Jasionowski said.
Supporters vote by uploading photos of themselves or people they know enjoying apples, apple products such as apple juice or applesauce, or the partner companies' products. The deadline is Nov. 15. The photos can be posted to the Apples4Ed website, or on Instagram to #Apples4Ed with the name of the school project.
Langston's playground makeover is currently in second place. The prekindergarten had an Apple Fiesta last week and has an Apple Palooza slated for Friday. Jasionowski is also planning a schoolwide event.
"The parents are involved and the kids are excited," she said. "When we had apples at lunch the other day, the kids we ready for us to take pictures."
Every project will receive some funding, Brannen said, with percentages of the vote count determining the shares.
The campaign, she said, takes advantage of the traditional use of apples as a symbol for education and encourages children to try apples in the many varieties and forms in which they are now available.
"This is just a way that we can connect the dots on apples and education and get children eating a healthy fruit," Brannen said.