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COVER STORY: The trouble with kids today

The next generation of grocery shoppers may also be the first to have a shorter life expectancy than the generation before it, if the startling rate of obesity currently plaguing children in the United States continues.

That could pose a big problem for food retailers who are eager to court these kids as long-term, loyal shoppers, but it certainly puts the matter in perspective for those willing to become part of the solution.

Initially, many supermarket operators may have kept their distance from the issue, arguing that they weren't to blame for the childhood obesity epidemic -- after all, they just sell the food that people want and, ultimately, that parents buy. As a result, countering obesity is an objective that has been relatively low on most retailers' priority lists, well behind fighting the competition and trimming their budgets.

However, as the government continues to urge industry to play a role in prevention and eventually finding a cure, a number of supermarket operators are taking a more thoughtful and proactive approach to communicating how a balanced diet fits into the healthy weight equation.

With the busy back-to-school season in full swing, for example, supermarkets are focusing on packing healthier lunches and offering more sensible dinner solutions to aid time-starved parents. In many instances, they're bringing aboard dietitians to answer shoppers' questions, provide online literature, and come up with creative promotional ideas.

At Meijer, Inc. in Grand Rapids, Mich., a dietitian provides healthy and simple meal ideas each week, complete with shopping lists. Albertsons, H-E-B, and Giant of Landover work with local schools to coordinate store tours that focus on nutrition. And Schnuck Markets in St. Louis gets kids moving in a five-kilometer run/walk each fall as part of its "Get Fit With Five" promotion.

"I think grocers are moving in the right direction, and food manufacturers are beginning to provide more options," says Kathleen Zelman, director of nutrition for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic.

"So far the food industry has been stepping up to the plate. Can they do more? Absolutely. It's going to take a village -- it will require everyone's attention if we're going to stem the tide of this obesity epidemic," suggests Zelman.

Over the past 20 years the percentage of children that are overweight has doubled and tripled among adolescents. Today nearly 15 percent of American kids are overweight or obese -- more than 9 million children, or one in every seven kids.

Global proportions

The problem isn't limited to America, either. Obesity among French children has sharply increased by about 17 percent in the past 20 years. In response the French government has voted to remove some 8,000 vending machines selling chocolate, sweets, and carbonated soft drinks from schools. Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, BBC Worldwide has announced new rules for licensing the Teletubbies and other television characters on children's food, in hopes of reversing the country's growing rate of childhood obesity.

Here at home, similar moves are being considered as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services warns that the economic costs of obesity are second only to tobacco use. Obese children are at increased risk of weight-related chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes. Even more alarming is the government's prediction that if children today don't alter their unhealthy eating habits and get more exercise, we may see the first generation that will be less healthy and have a shorter life expectancy than the one that preceded it.

Health experts are unified in their assessment that there's no quick fix. Neither is there a single culprit behind childhood obesity, although the most frequently named offenders include the abundant amounts of fast food, sugar-laden sodas, and sweets in kids' diets -- along with too much time spent watching TV and surfing the Internet, and too little exercise. The experts agree that reversing the trend will take many small steps by a wide collection of actors.

Food manufacturers are reacting by offering product reformulations such as reduced-sugar cereals and trans-fat-free cookies. Ultimately, however, the changes must reflect goals that parents and children can realistically achieve, notes Stephanie Childs, spokeswoman at the Grocery Manufacturers of America.

"Children don't live the lives they did 10 or 15 years ago. We have to look at the reality of where they are today, not only with increasing rates of overweight, but also the lifestyles they live. We can set pie-in-the-sky nutrition guidelines, but if they can't realistically achieve them, what's it worth?"

The reality, says Childs, is that in a single-parent or two-parent household the adults are often working, and that's why companies are developing healthier snacks for on-the-go lifestyles, and simpler meal solutions. Portion control is also an issue, so manufacturers are taking that into account, as well, she adds.

"We're big supporters of positive messages. Consumers hear so much about diets, they're bombarded with negative messages," notes Childs. Besides, dietitians advise that the fad diets that typically appeal to adults shouldn't be applied to children.

"Kids shouldn't need to be on diets -- they need all the nourishment and nutrition they can get from food," says Zelman. "In many cases they're overfed but undernourished."

Negatives into positives

Smart supermarket operators are tackling the issue by transforming the negative focus on obesity and crash-and-burn diets into a positive health-and-wellness-focused message promoting balanced diets, meals at home, and even more exercise for children.

"What's the role of the grocery store? Some say they're not in the loop, because they just sell the food, they don't make it. But that isn't the direction we wanted to go," says Julie Carrier, director of development at the Ohio Food Industry Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the Ohio Grocers Association that focuses on educational and community outreach.

Carrier and several Ohio-area retailers got together earlier this year to form an obesity task force that also includes community members. Based on their discussions, they're now developing a consumer education program called CartSmart, which retailers will eventually roll out in their stores. Among the program's initiatives so far: simple meal solution promotions created by dietitians, and suggested healthy lunchbox items.

For their part, the trade groups Food Marketing Institute and GMA are currently in talks to see how they might collaborate to offer help to the industry. (At presstime, officials with the two associations said talks were too premature to provide specifics.) Until then, however, an increasing number of supermarkets are taking matters into their own hands.

At Ahold USA, health and wellness is considered a corporate priority, according to Odonna Mathews, v.p. of consumer affairs for Giant Food of Landover and Stop & Shop. "There's a focus from the top here. Marc Smith [president of the combined group] wants us to do more in this area," she says. "One of his goals for the company is to help consumers learn how to eat and live well."

Giant of Landover has distinguished itself by having in-house nutrition expertise for 30 years. Now its sister chain, Stop & Shop, will benefit from that accumulated intelligence as the two banners merge certain corporate functions for their 550 stores, according to Mathews.

Ahold has hired a new health and wellness manager, Paulette Thompson, to oversee programs for the stores. Meanwhile the chains have formed a health and wellness committee made up of representatives from various corporate departments, including marketing, corporate brands, pharmacy, produce, and meat/ seafood/deli.

Throughout September both Giant and Stop & Shop handed out fliers offering tips about packing nutritious lunches. Giant also plans to hold school tours this fall at stores in the Washington/Baltimore market, according to Mathews. Once the U.S. Department of Agriculture launches its revised food pyramid next year, the company plans to get involved with education efforts there, as well.

Midwestern market leader Meijer, Inc. has established "Healthy Living" as one of its core brand focuses. So it's only natural that childhood obesity is being addressed in several ways among the company's 163 grocery/general merchandise combo stores in five states.

Shari Steinbach, a registered dietitian who has been Meijer's "Healthy Living advisor" for a year now, says she's been getting a "bulk of compliments" on the weekly menus and shopping lists she provides via the company's Web site. "The menus aren't specifically for weight loss, but they provide good, balanced nutrition. It's a better value than eating out," she notes.

Olympic ideas

During the back-to-school season Meijer featured special in-store kiosks that not only provided a shopping list for school supplies, but also included tips on packing healthy lunches; ideas for quick, healthy breakfasts; and a list of items to keep on hand in the pantry so that busy parents are better prepared to make family meals on the fly. "These things are all very solution-oriented. It's one thing to say you need a healthy breakfast every day, but it's another to actually tell you how to do it," says Steinbach.

In addition to helping customers with meal planning, Meijer has gotten involved in promoting fitness for kids. A promotion that tied into the Summer Olympics featured messages about activities and food from U.S. athletes including Mia Hamm and Michael Phelps. "The kids picked up the information, which was updated every week for five weeks. It included the history of the Olympics, and tips for exercise. They could send in a checklist showing that they did the exercises and get a medal," explains Steinbach.

Meijer took a similar approach during its Sept. 11 "Kids Week" program. Children visited different stations in the store, picked up activity booklets, and participated in simple activities to win a Meijer fitness ribbon. Adds Steinbach: "We also had healthy snacks at each station. Kids were provided with a log that they used to record activity each day for a week. If they mailed in the completed log, they received a free pedometer."

August was "Kids' Health Month" at Wild Oats, a natural and organic food chain based in Boulder, Colo. During the promotion, children could sample healthy produce, snacks, bakery items, and more, as well as attend kid-friendly in-store events and lectures on healthy snacks and the importance of eating five fruits and vegetables a day.

"We wanted to show kids and parents that they can come somewhere like Wild Oats and pick healthier items for back-to-school," says Wild Oats spokeswoman Kristi Estes.

Boise, Idaho-based Albertsons is taking a chainwide approach by launching a 34-state program featuring Healthy Eating field trips to its local Albertsons, Acme, Jewel-Osco, and Shaw's stores, in hopes of helping children and their families make lifelong healthy eating decisions. The field trips will be conducted in cooperation with local schools, and will be led by local registered dietitians or Albertsons associates trained in teaching healthy eating habits.

Albertsons' idea is reminiscent of the "Be A Healthy Buddy!" program offered by San Antonio, Texas-based H.E. Butt Grocery Co., in which schoolchildren can take field trips of H-E-B stores and learn about eating healthier, portion sizes, and fitness. H-E-B's Web site includes the character "H.E. Buddy" and several games kids can play.

Regional player Schnuck Markets, Inc. encourages kids to get out and run each fall in a five-kilometer run/walk across the Martin Luther King Jr. Bridge from St. Louis to East St. Louis, Ill. and back. The annual community event, which benefits the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center in East St. Louis and typically includes an appearance by the runner herself, is the culmination of Schnucks' "Get Fit With Five" two-month health and fitness education program, which promotes the Produce for Better Health Foundation's "color wheel" approach to eating five or more fruits and vegetables daily.

Schnucks began the event three years ago. This year's run is expected to draw more than 1,000 participants, according to a company spokesman.

Tip of the iceberg

Despite the encouraging momentum building among supermarkets, however, some nutrition professionals warn that addressing the problem ultimately requires deeper insight into how the food industry operates.

Marion Nestle, a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, who has been an outspoken critic of what she calls the "politics of food," points out that the nature of capitalism requires that companies sell more food, thus encouraging adults and children to eat more than they need to.

Nestle has spoken at some well-known food industry events, including the CIES World Food Business Summit in Rome and the annual Food Executive Program at Cornell University. During such presentations Nestle gives her "standard food politics speech," she notes. "I present my basic thesis, that the food industry is a hugely competitive industry in which there's far too much food available, and far too many choices."

In some cases the high-level executives in attendance "get it," she says. However, many midlevel execs are still caught up in arguments over personal responsibility vs. corporate responsibility.

In defense of the supermarket industry, Nestle concedes that operators face many challenges in such competitive times. "I think there are things supermarkets can do, but it's complicated. They can make choices about products they carry, produce placement, and what they advertise. It's not proven that these things will impact the bottom line, however," she admits.

"Everyone has to think about whether they're going to be part of the problem or part of the solution," she notes. "Then they can decide what they're going to do."

For supermarkets, looking at the problem long-term is a logical move. After all, most retailers are betting that their young shoppers of today will be their most loyal shoppers of tomorrow.
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