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Nutritional Tour De Force


Healthy eating coaches are becoming a supermarket staple.

As a nation, we are literally bursting at the seams. Obesity is a national health threat and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an increasing challenge to public health in the last decade. Today, the Atlanta-based CDC estimates that approximately 72.5 million adults in the United States are obese and that an estimated 16.9 percent of children between 2 and 19 years old are also obese.

Many of the nation’s most progressive grocers are confronting this health challenge head-on and at the source: the neighborhood supermarket.

Retailers such as Hannaford Supermarkets, Weis Markets, Hy-Vee and Wegmans are offering customers nutritional tours of their stores. Some retailers have specifically targeted children with fun and creative healthy eating programs, while others are using signage to rate the nutritional value of the products on store shelves to help customers make informed choices for better health.

Reach for the Stars

In 2006, Hannaford, a Delhaize America-owned grocery chain based in Scarborough, Maine, launched its “Guiding Stars” program. The program rates the healthfulness of certain foods and ranks them by star power right on the price tag. “Not every food qualifies,” explains Connie Clifford, Hannaford healthy living manager of consumer education. “The food has to meet a threshold of nutrition density.” Qualifying foods are rated as one, two or three stars. One star is good, two stars are better and three stars are best. The system, says Clifford, “helps people to find foods that are right for them, and it makes shopping for healthy foods quick and easy.”

Hannaford became one of the first markets to offer store nutrition tours, in 2004. Today, these tours are supplemented by monthly nutrition classes, which precede them. The retailer also features regular demos to address specific health concerns, using a special nutrition demo cart out on the store floor. Hannaford covers 52 topics a year with these demos, including the importance of vitamin D, healthy snacks for kids, and managing your diet with diabetes.

Like many retailers who have taken on the role of nutrition coach, Hannaford uses its website as a communication tool and point of contact with customers. The store’s “Ask Our Nutritionist” feature encourages customers to e-mail or call Kris Lindsey, Hannaford’s registered dietitian, with their health and nutrition questions. In addition, the nutrition coaching needs of 45 of Hannaford’s stores are covered by a team of 22 registered dietitians, each of whom works in the stores between eight and 20 hours a week, notes Clifford. “It’s a big commitment that Hannaford has made to educate people in our stores,” says Clifford. “Hannaford is very involved in our community, and this focus on better nutrition has been a clear need with the rise of obesity.”

Kid-Friendly Nutrition

Weis Markets has decided that no child should be left behind when it comes to good health and nutrition. The supermarket chain, based in Sunbury, Pa., recently launched a fun and educational program called “Weis Mystery Tours,” designed to teach third- and fourth-graders the fundamentals of good eating habits. The 90-minute tour invites kids to dress up as detectives and visit various stations positioned throughout select Weis stores in search of clues that will help them solve the mystery of why “Energetic George” has lost his energy.

Teachers are given a full storyline to share with their students about George in advance — he’s feeling weak and tired; he’s been skipping breakfast and playing video games instead of playing outside. At each station, students can sample healthful foods and learn a clue based on the USDA Food Pyramid to help them solve George’s mystery. At the end of the tour, each child gets a goodie bag that contains a nutrition-focused activity book, a healthy snack and a sealed top-secret envelope containing nutritional information for parents.

Weis developed and tested the program during the 2007-08 school year. After incorporating feedback from teachers and the 500 students who participated in the pilot, the grocer was ready to roll out the full program in 50 of its 164 stores in Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, New Jersey and West Virginia.

This summer, Weis sent out 2,500 invitations to schools and community organizations, urging them to arrange interactive Mystery Tour field trips. Weis director of lifestyle initiatives Karen Buch says that initial response has been overwhelmingly positive and that the company anticipates hosting some 25,000 students on tours this school year.

“Childhood obesity is a crisis that we’re seeing in this country,” notes Buch. “We felt, what better place to combat this crisis than in the grocery store, where food choices are being made?”

Signage Good Enough to Eat

For the past three years, Kowalski’s Markets, a family-owned operation with nine supermarkets in the Twin Cities area, has worked with nutrition consultant Sue Moores on the development of its “Good Foods for Good Health” program. “We flag foods that meet our criteria for good health,” explains Moores, adding that when the program began, it focused on specific health concerns, from bone health to brain health to the immune system.

While the Good Foods for Good Health logo, which appears on store banners, deli items and more throughout the store, is a familiar one to Kowalski’s shoppers, the retailer no longer uses it to distinguish each healthful item. This year, Kowalski’s simplified the program, and rather than spotlight individual products on the shelf, the grocer has created Good Foods for Good Health cards, which it makes available in every aisle. The cards educate customers about how to make healthful dietary choices, and list several of the retailer’s top choices for nutrient-rich products in a particular category.

Kowalski’s also offers brochures on a variety of hot health topics that are available at kiosks, typically at the front of its stores. Information on each of these health interests is additionally available on Kowalski’s website, as is a direct link to Moores’ nutrition advice.

“Kowalski’s has always been innovative, and prides itself on its connection with the community,” explains Moores. “They hear that customers want to be healthier and want to be assured that the foods they are buying are well sourced. This [nutrition coaching] is just taking that concept to the next level.”

In addition to consulting work, Moores teaches classes for the retailer on health and nutrition. “Our most wildly successful class last year was called ‘Love in a Lunch Box,’” she says. Parents and children take the class together. Kowalski’s chooses several exotic yet healthful foods and invites the parents to try them. This allows the kids to be in the driver’s seat — suddenly, they are they ones coaxing their parents to try something new. Together, the parents and kids then learn about the ingredients in a healthful packed lunch. The class was such a hit, according to Moores, that Kowalski’s plans to offer it again this year.

Outsourced Nutrition

If developing a comprehensive nutrition program from scratch sounds daunting, have someone else do it for you. A number of supermarket retailers across the country are experimenting with outsourcing their nutritional information. Cincinnati-based Kroger recently began testing the NuVal scoring system in some of its stores, and is reportedly considering taking the concept nationwide. NuVal, developed by an independent panel of nutrition and medial experts, rates the nutritional value of a particular product on a scale of one to 100, with the higher the number, the better the nutrition.

Retailers pay a fee to license the scoring system from NuVal LLC, a joint venture between Skokie, Ill.-based Topco Associates LLC and Griffin Hospital of Derby, Conn. The score or nutritional value assigned to each product appears on the shelf price tag, allowing customers to immediately compare the nutritional value of their favorite cereal, peanut butter, etc., with the nutritional value of another product in the same category.

On its website, NuVal explains that each score “takes into account more than just the nutrition fact panel. It considers 30-plus nutrients and nutrition factors — the good (protein, calcium, vitamins) and the not-so-good (sugar, sodium, cholesterol). And then it boils it down into a simple, easy-to-use number.”

High-tech Health

Still other retailers are hoping that hip technology will make good nutrition cool. An example of this is Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Markets, which recently took better nutrition in hand.

“Are you ready for the challenge?” That was the question posed by Whole Foods when it launched its Missions App for the iPhone this August. The natural food store’s app provides users with more than 70 health-conscious “missions,” plus practical cooking and nutrition advice, food storage tips, store locators and more. Accomplish the missions and earn badges that give you bragging rights on Facebook, Twitter and e-mail.

However supermarkets decide to disseminate nutrition information, here’s hoping it appeals to America’s appetite.

Safeway Loyalty Program Helping Schools Beat Obesity

Some supermarket retailers, like Safeway Inc., based in Pleasanton, Calif., are responding to the rise of childhood obesity and the reduction or elimination of school fitness and nutrition programs by offering shoppers generous incentives. Safeway’s “eScrip Fitness and Nutrition Activity Bonus” program allows customers in select markets to earn money for the schools of their choice by shopping with their Safeway Club Card. Each school can earn up to $25,000 annually. In return, Safeway asks that the schools register and report their progress online. The retailer also requires that 20 percent of the allocated funds it donates go to support a range of physical and nutrition programs, from fitness activities to nutrition speakers to healthy food options on the school lunch menu.

The top five schools in each Safeway eScrip market that report monthly and dedicate the highest percentage of their funds to fitness and nutrition programs are then eligible for an additional $1,000 bonus. The program began Aug. 1 and will run through June 30, 2011.

“What better place to combat [the childhood obesity] crisis than in the grocery store, where food choices are being made?”

—Karen Buch, Weis Markets

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