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For Many Oakland Shoppers, Food Is Just What The Doctor Ordered

OAKLAND, Calif. -- One Oakland grocery shopper has lost four dress sizes, simply by incorporating trips to a new store here, Food Farm'acy, into her weekly routine. Others consumers have lowered their blood pressure, boosted their energy, strengthened their immune systems, and boosted their energy.

Indeed, since the health food supermarket opened on the campus of Kaiser Permanente's Oakland Medical Center in January, the retail company’s co-owners, brothers Kirk and Art Watkins, also lost 15 and 40 pounds, respectively.

This is exactly the kind of results they were hoping to see among the store's customers, a third of whom come from the medical center -- either as patients or staff.

"The store is designed to be a foolproof way to shop for healthy foods," Kirk Watkins told Progressive Grocer in an interview. "It is geared toward people who have special dietary needs, such as weight loss, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Many physicians include dietary recommendations along with their prescriptions."

In fact, it was Kaiser's physician-in-chief, Dr. Tom McDonald, who came up with the idea for the medical center store while he was shopping at the Watkins' more conventional Food Mill store, also in Oakland.

While the Food Farm'acy is owned and operated by Food Mill, the inventory, which includes many natural and organic items, must be approved by Kaiser's McDonald. "It took us several months to figure out what to sell," said Watkins. "Since Dr. McDonald wanted to create a product mix from which it was nearly impossible to make an unhealthy selection, he is very conservative in his choice of inventory."

As a result, the 1,500-square-foot store offers primarily foods that are low-fat, low-cholesterol, low-carb, low-sodium, and that contain no trans fats, and no processed sugar. Products include whole-grain pasta, organic canned beans, whole-grain breakfast cereals, frozen fruits and vegetables, tofu, bulk grains, fruit juices, and medicinal teas and bottled waters, as well as some vitamins and supplements.

What has become very popular among Kaiser staffers and patients are the prepared salads and entrees, which are part of a weight loss-regimen developed by McDonald and the store's assistant manager, Kevin Comerford, who has a degree in nutritional biochemistry. "Each prepared meal is identified with a red, yellow, or a green label," Comerford said. "Items marked with a red label are geared for those looking to lose weight, and include low-fat, low-carb items, such as lean meats and vegetables."

Items marked in yellow are for shoppers looking to maintain their weight, and some ingredients are added back into them that are excluded in the red-tagged items, such as foods with balanced sugar and healthy fats.

Items marked with green are for those consumers without weight loss concerns, but who are looking for something healthy.

In addition to this labeling, throughout the store are signs with helpful advice and reminders -- such as a sign by fruit juice warning that -- although the drinks are healthy -- they still contain a high caloric content.

Store traffic has not met initial expectations to date, Watkins said, which he attributed primarily to the fact that the parking is not adjacent to the store. The owners have not yet launched any marketing efforts in support of the store, however. Still Food Farm'acy has begun to spark interest from other Kaiser locations. "There may be some opportunities at other Kaiser locations," Watkins said, "but the decision to open them with be predicated on the success of this one -- it's too early to tell at this time."
-- Joe Tarnowski

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