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Networking for Supermarket Nutrition

April 5, 2011

Caroline Whitby (Giant Eagle) and Rosanne Toroian (Schnucks Market) help Rosie Benner (H-E-B) with a healthy cooking demo at the Supermarket Dietitian Symposium.

Someone’s watching out for your health at your local grocery store, and that someone is the supermarket dietitian, a professional nutrition expert found more and more often at retailers across the United States.

Sara, Georgia, Casey and I met three dozen supermarket RDs last week at the Oldways 2011 Supermarket Dietitian Symposium in Santa Rosa, CA and came away hugely inspired by the creativity supermarket RDs bring to helping consumers be healthier by initiatives such as…

  • explaining how to set up a home gym for $30 (Meijer)
  • taking 10,000 kids a year on Be a Smart Shopper tours (Giant Eagle)
  • setting up an instore CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, to make local produce, breads, and cheeses more available (Hen House)
  • training hospital dietitians to do store tours with their diabetic patients and others with chronic disease (Skogens Festival Foods)
  • doing cooking demos – in English and Spanish – on local TV (H-E-B)

Why do so many supermarkets hire RDs? Given the typical paper-thin margins in the grocery business, stores aren’t doing this simply to be nice. But that, to me, is the most gratifying fact of all: supermarket RDs make money for stores. “RDs pay for themselves,” said Donna Dolan, MS, RD, LD, an independent consultant who worked for ten years at Hy-Vee. “Whatever foods you talk about as a supermarket RD, you’re going to get a sales lift.” Imagine. It actually pays to do the right thing.

It’s a commonly-accepted myth that food manufacturers and food retailers alike seek to make profits solely by marketing unhealthy “foodlike substances’” to us. But manufacturers and retailers are made up of people who, like us, have kids and parents, and care about their own families’ health. Yes, they have to make a profit to stay in business, but If they can make a profit selling healthy food, they’d much rather do so. And for that task, supermarket RDs are a powerful weapon for promoting enjoyment of healthy food and home cooking.

Our Supermarket Dietitian Symposium, planned by Oldways in conjunction with Barbara Ruhs, MS, RD, LDN of Bashas’ Family of Stores, offered supermarket RDs from across the country (and into Canada) a unique opportunity to come together and trade tips and best practices with each other and with other food industry professionals for three days.

Phil Lempert, the Supermarket Guru®, leads a tour of Whole Foods.

The program opened Wednesday, March 30, with a Mediterranean reception and dinner. On Thursday, Phil Lempert, the Supermarket Guru® who appears regularly on NBC’s Today Show, kicked off the conference sessions with a talk on supermarket trends, then led us through a local Whole Foods store, commenting on how store merchandising can best promote healthy foods. Dr. David Just, who works with Brian Wansink at Cornell University, held the stage next, with a thought-provoking review of easy and unexpected ways to make healthy eating the path of least resistance. (Look for more details on both these presentations in an upcoming blog.)

Aside from these two outside experts, the RDs themselves were the stars of the show for the remaining sessions, alternating their presentations with those of food suppliers. Selling healthier food is a team effort, and smart food companies know that supermarket dietitians can be key to ensuring that healthy foods sell through and get restocked. In tandem with the supermarket RDs, the food company speakers – many of whom were also registered dietitians – offered information and resources of their own. Barilla shared data showing which foods are most often bought in the same cart with whole grain pasta, to help RDs plan effective endcap promotions. The Mushroom Council offered shelf danglers and shelf talkers – mini-signs that draw attention to products in supermarket aisles – to highlight mushrooms. The California Avocado Commission shared samples of recipes like Avocanana Bread and Avocado Cheesecake, that use avocados as an alternative source of healthy fat for baking.

Attendees at the Supermarket Dietitian Symposium enjoyed networking.

“Thanks for all these out-in-the-aisles user materials,” said one supermarket RD, expressing a widely-shared appreciation of food suppliers’ willingness to foot the bill for food samples, recipe development, posters, and handouts. “Here’s how to work with us,” she went on to say. We plan three to four months out. Don’t send us your 4th of July watermelon promotion in June. When you send us recipes, make sure they’re healthy and they include nutrition facts.  We love demo kits: recipes with a list of all ingredients, all preparation steps, and all equipment needed.

“Now I know who to call,” said another supermarket RD, as we shared a ride back to the airport. “Before, if I wanted to promote oatmeal, for instance, I didn’t know how to talk to Quaker. My category manager could give me their salesperson’s name, but I don’t want to talk to some sales guy. I want to call up their RD, and get some tips on health studies, ask them to send me recipes and resources.”

For twenty years Oldways has worked to create productive partnerships and synergies between health professionals and food suppliers; our work with supermarket dietitians is just another chapter in our efforts to bring out the best in every link of the food chain. We’re planning to make our Supermarket Dietitian Symposium an annual event, with ongoing initiatives throughout the year to support supermarket RDs in the incredibly important work that they do. Contact Georgia Orcutt (617-896-4861 or gorcutt@oldwayspt.org) if you’d like to help!

You can see the full schedule of the Oldways 2011 Supermarket Dietitian Symposium on the Oldways website where you can also download all available presentations.

— Cindy

Thanks to all the dietitians and food suppliers who made this Symposium a success by their lively dialog and exchange of ideas: Supermarket RDs and professionals from Balls Food Stores / Hen House, Bashas’ Famiy of Stores, Big Y Foods, Defense Commissary Agency, FreshDirect, Giant Eagle, Hannaford, H-E-B, Hy-Vee, Ingles Markets, Kowalski’s, Kroger, K-VA-T Stores, Meijer, PCC Natural Markets, Safeway, Schnuck Markets, ShopRite of Flemington, Skogens Festival Foods, Sobey’s, Spartan Stores, TOPCO, United Spermarkets, Wegmans, Weis Markets, and Whole Foods; and to our food supplier sponsors: DelMonte and FritoLay; California Almond Board, Barilla, California Avocado Commission, FoodMatch, MilkPEP, Quaker, and Vestcom; the American Heart Association Certification Program, Crunchmaster / TH Foods, Eggland’s Best, General Mills / Green Giant Frozen, the Mushroom Council, and the Peanut Institute; and Cabot Cheese, McCormick Spices, Stonyfield / Oikos Organic Greek Yogurt, Solae, and Tuna the Wonderfish.

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