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Who is That Gerber Baby? - 2003-08-20

Gerber, the Baby Food Company, is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. The Gerber story started in a kitchen, with a hand-cranked food strainer, a hungry baby and a loving mother. Then came that happy and healthy baby face that over the years has graced millions of jars of baby food.

People polled throughout the United States have suggested that the Gerber baby - depicted on all the baby food products, grew up to be Humphrey Bogart, Elizabeth Taylor or Bob Dole. But the real person behind that baby face is a retired English teacher and a mystery novelist; her name is Ann Turner Cook.

"I was always proud of that fact. It was a very pleasant thing to happen. All babies are adorable, and I was just lucky that it was my picture that was used," she says.

Ms. Turner Cook says she was the subject of a simple charcoal sketch by an artist who specialized in drawing children.

"Dorothy Hope Smith was the artist who drew the portrait. She made it for me when I was four or five months old. Later, she sold it to the Gerber Company when they first began making the baby food and I became the Gerber trademark," she says.

Gerber Corporate Executive Officer Frank Palantoni says the company started in 1927, when a mother named Dorothy Gerber was hand-straining solid food for her seven-month-old daughter Sally.

Dorothy Gerber wanted a more convenient way to feed her baby. Her husband, Dan Gerber, had a canning company in Fremont, Michigan that canned fruits and vegetables. She encouraged him to puree the food and put it in cans, and the rest was really history," he says.

Experiments with strained baby food began shortly thereafter. In 1928, Gerber was looking for a baby face for the ad campaign introducing its newly developed baby food. Artist Smith submitted her drawing amid elaborate oil paintings and said she could finish it if it was accepted. But the Gerber Company officials were so taken with it that they claimed it as it was. The baby face soon became so popular that Gerber adopted it as its trademark in 1931.

"That baby face that does symbolize happy and healthy babies has been with us the whole time. It has been with us for 75 years and it is going to be with us forever," says Mr. Palantoni.

Unlike young children who win contests or appear on TV commercials or movies and become famous, Ms. Ann Turner Cook says being the Gerber baby was not the focus of her life because her parents made very little of it. She says the emphasis of her life has been on teaching and writing.

"I was a public school teacher for 26 years, and I am proud of this career, but then I wanted to write. And after I retired I began writing. I have published one murder mystery set in Florida Trace the Shadows and I have another one coming next month Shadow Over Cider Key," she says. "Both of them emphasize the importance of the bonds between mother and child."

Gerber executive Frank Palantoni believes that healthy nutrition is one of the elements that strengthen the bond between a mother and her baby. He says that 75 years of constant development and innovation has made Gerber baby food a household name worldwide.

"We started with only five varieties. Today we have 200. We've gone from cans in the early days, to 50 years ago we changed to glass and just last year, by listening to what our customers tell us, our moms and dads want more convenience, we've changed packing to a plastic version, which is more appropriate for today's lifestyle," he says.

Mr. Palantoni says that the company has also maintained research facilities dedicated to infant nutrition. "The important thing about nutrition in the USA is that we have an obesity problem, but that also is the same in the rest of the world. Even in the developing countries, obesity is also emerging as a big issue. And what we believe in, as a solution, is to have parents teach their children healthy eating habits," he says.

Nearly 190 Gerber food products are now labeled in 16 languages and distributed in 80 countries. And while Gerber Baby Foods has always adopted a new look, Ann Turner Cook's face is still part of the Gerber image. After all, that face has become one of the most famous faces throughout the world.