Originally printed in the January 2020 issue of Produce Business.
Retailers find myriad ways to incorporate healthy messaging and hands-on learning via on-the-ground practitioners.
Registered dietitians hired by supermarkets are now becoming an integral component in the arsenal of talent utilized “in the field” to encourage shoppers to purchase more fruits and vegetables. And savvy produce marketers are keen to reach out and develop partnerships that incorporate full-scale strategies to promote their products with the RDs taking a lead role.
If you walked into the produce department of a prominent Midwest retailer during the third week of July in 2018, your attention would have been immediately drawn to an eye-catching taste-tempting display. Here, California Walnuts and four varieties of Stemilt Grower’s Lil Snapper-brand apples were paired with the ingredients to make the featured recipe: Sliced Apples with Greek Yogurt Walnut Caramel Dip.
Growers/shippers partnering with retailers to promote fresh produce isn’t anything new. However, in this case, there was much more than these two elements.
Specifically, this was one of the turnkey Produce Pairings pilots spearheaded by the Brentwood, MO-headquartered Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH). The point-of-purchase (POP) and online program not only featured creative displays spurred by produce manager contests, special signage and price promotions, but also manned recipe demos and health-and-wellness features called out by the chain’s retail Registered Dietitians (RDs) in their blogs, Facebook live segments and a ‘hands and pans’ video. The result? Compared to the same week the year prior, sales of California walnuts increased more than 1,000% and apples nearly 100%.
There’s no doubt today that retailers recognize education of health and wellness to shoppers presents a huge opportunity. In fact, nearly all (90%) of the 39 food retail companies (representing 20,000-plus stores) surveyed for the December 2019 released report, Retailer Contribution to Health & Wellness by the Arlington, VA-based Food Marketing Institute (FMI), had established programs of this type.
What’s more, nearly three-fourths (70%) of the retailer respondents cited business growth followed by meeting consumer expectations (63%), building customer loyalty (54%) and offering a ‘one-stop shop’ (54%) as the reasons they valued these programs. The FMI report further states that of the entire supermarket, nowhere resonates a well-being vibe more so than in the produce department. Thus, produce executives are ideally positioned to advocate for and reap the benefits of an RD or several RDs on the supermarket’s team.
“At ShopRite, our in-store dietitians are truly our best produce ambassadors as they represent health and wellness in our stores in so many ways,” says Derrick Jenkins, vice president of produce/floral at the Keasbey, NJ-headquartered Wakefern Food Corp., and a retailer-owned cooperative with nearly 280 stores.
The company has a robust social media program utilizing the dietitian team on both a local and corporate level. “Not only do they help consumers discover and buy more fruits and vegetables during their daily interactions with shoppers, they also make our produce offerings come alive by holding in-store demonstrations, store tours and other interactive events.
Additionally, by providing recipes that feature fresh produce items and creating social media posts and campaigns that highlight seasonal produce week after week, they do a phenomenal job of driving customer awareness about our fresh offerings. Their combined efforts make it possible for us to give our consumers the best possible shopping experience in the produce aisle, and further our success in this category,” notes Jenkins.
THE MANY ROLES OF RETAIL DIETITIANS
There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to an RD’s duties and job descriptions. Indeed, one of the real benefits of the profession is a single-minded passion for encouraging healthier eating and employing a myriad of creative out-of-the-box ways to accomplish this. Here are some examples:
DEMOS. There’s nothing like tasting to believe in buying. RDs put this concept on steroids. For example, the RD team at Hannaford Supermarkets, a 182-store chain based in Scarborough, ME, hosts monthly in-store manned demos of a simple recipe. The themes, incorporating produce and other ingredient sponsors, are lined up a year in advance by the chain’s healthy living marketing team. Then, the in-store dietitians collaboratively create the demo recipes, key talking points and perhaps a fun feature such as an interactive contest.
“By implementing nutrition literacy in primary education, students and families learned about how fruits and vegetables are grown…”— Andie Lee Gonzalez, H-E-B
“We have a feature we call our ‘movable classroom’; it’s a table that rolls, and this is where we do our demos, says Hannaford dietitian, Marilyn Mills, MS, RD, LD, CDE. “Most often, the demo is set up in the produce department because this is an area where customers often linger or meander, and we’re able to catch them for a conversation. Plus, even when produce isn’t the featured item that month, fruits or vegetables are almost always a recipe ingredient.”
A far-reaching example is the RD Demo program created by Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, Wellness Services corporate dietitian for the Albertsons Companies, a 2,300-plus store chain headquartered in Boise, ID, that operates under a dozen banners. Magee designs monthly omnichannel promotions, including recipe development, handouts, in-store demos in two stores in each of the company’s regional divisions and a social media component to reach the largest audience possible. She works with sponsors to make sure demos are budget-neutral or positive. Approximately one-third of these sponsors are produce organizations, most recently including the California Fresh Fig Growers Association, USA Pears, Avocados from Mexico, California Avocado Commission and The Mushroom Council.
“No matter what the generation, people are open to being inspired. We provide that inspiration, and that’s why it’s a demo, not just sampling,” says Magee.
SUPERMARKET TOURS. During the Weis Mystery Tours and Explorers Field Trips for kids, organized and led by the dietitian team at Weis Markets, a 198-store chain based in Sunbury, PA, groups stop in the produce department to learn about the nutrition benefits and how fruits and veggies grow, says Kathryn Long, RDN, LDN, Healthy Living Coordinator. “The kids also get the opportunity to sample fresh produce; usually kiwi or pineapple.”
In the past, the in-store RD’s employed by Kroger Health, the healthcare arm of The Kroger Co., a 2,700-plus store chain headquartered in Cincinnati, have teamed up with produce organizations such as Avocados from Mexico and USA Pears to provide 30-minute personal shopping sessions.
“These enable shoppers to learn the specific benefits of these produce items, how to prepare and store them, along with food pairings to make a meal or snack that’s easy, fresh and nutrient-dense,” says Bridget Wojciak, RDN, LD, senior nutrition coordinator. “Shoppers typically choose to take a cart along for the session to grab items.”
KID’S COOKING CLASSES. Each month, Coborn’s Petersen teaches a Kid’s Creation class at one of the chain’s locations. For this, she partners with a produce company to provide product and resources for those that attend. The recipes are no-bake, no-cook and are appropriate for ages 3 to 10 years. After the class, Petersen says 90% of the kids and their families will purchase the produce and other ingredients to make the recipe again at home.
IN-STORE & COMMUNITY MEDIA. The HealthyBites Magazine is the primary vehicle for nutrition, health and wellness content in our stores, says Beth Stark, RDN, LDN, Nutrition + Lifestyle Initiatives Manager for Weis Markets. “We partner with various produce brands and commodity boards to be featured in the magazine with ads or recipe solutions, as a sponsor for in-store dietitian activities and for monthly Facebook Live videos.”
Each week, retail RDs at Big Y Foods, Inc., an 83-store chain based in Springfield, MA, tape ‘how-to’ television and social media segments around the use of produce items. Similarly, the RDs also contribute a nutrition article for the local newspaper and its online platform.
“Whether it’s an article on broccolini, with information on how to select it, its health benefits and what to do with it, or a feature on making homemade soup loaded with fresh vegetables, this platform allows us to reach a large number of people at once to encourage fresh produce consumption,” says Andrea Luttrell, RDN, LDN, RD for the chain’s Living Well Eating Smart Program.
ONLINE & SOCIAL MEDIA. ShopRite, the registered trademark of Wakefern, has a robust social media program that utilizes the dietitian team on both a local and corporate level, says Shelbi Thurau, RD, retail dietitian supervisor. “We afford each dietitian the freedom to creatively integrate produce items into their posts and online recipes. Our ongoing health and wellness and #wellnesswednesday campaigns are some of our most popular and engaging online campaigns.”
Similarly, at Skogen’s Festival Foods, a 32-unit chain headquartered in De Pere, WI, the retailer RDs consistently utilize a variety of social media channels to promote fresh produce. The chain’s website served as the platform for the RD-designed Head Over Meals program, a 100-day campaign that ran in the first part of 2019 and featured a new challenge each week.
“The cooking challenges were designed to get participants back in the kitchen to make homemade meals. Some of the produce-specific challenges included trying veggie fries/tots, plant-based desserts, plant-based protein, new ways of eating avocado and veggie noodles/rice,” explains Casey Crevier, RDN, CD, nutrition communications specialist.
In 2019, Giant Food’s RDs, a 163-store chain based in Landover, MD, launched a podcast, called Nutrition Made Easy.
“Through Nutrition Made Easy, we are able to share clinical information, but also highlight our favorite produce items in an on-the-go format that provides customers with nutrition inspiration no matter their location,” says Jillian Griffith, MSPH, RDN, LDN, in-store nutritionist.
PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT. Retail RDs, especially those with culinary training, have ventured into the area of developing menu items for retailers’ in-store foodservice operations. For example, Ashley Martinez, MFN, RD, LD, NASM-CPT, is an expert member of Kroger’s new Culinary Innovation Center team. In this role, she works with other team members to develop selections for Kroger’s Kitchen 1883 Café and Bar as well as for its Prep+Pared Meal Kits. She also plays a unique role as a subject matter expert for healthier creations. This has included everything from the development of produce-forward smoothies to a Colorfall Salad made of roasted sweet potatoes, roasted beets, corn and black bean salsa, grape tomatoes, purple cabbage and dried cranberries.
COMMUNITY INITIATIVES. Partnerships with schools, public sector programs and non-profit organizations are some of the ways RDs use fresh produce to powerfully connect their retailer with the community.
A few years ago, the Nutrition Services team at H-E-B, a San Antonio-headquartered retailer with some 340 stores, partnered with the Dole Food Company and a local school district to host a curriculum called ‘Let’s Get Growing.’ The 12-week bilingual program, designed by the RDs, aimed to teach second graders about the fundamentals of agriculture in modern day society and create excitement around the consumption of produce. Ultimately, the program reached more than 50 elementary schools within a two-year period.
“By implementing nutrition literacy in primary education, students and families learned about how fruits and vegetables are grown, and how to implement healthy foods in their everyday intake habits. The partnership between Dole and H-E-B also allowed us to distribute coupons to families to encourage fruit and vegetable consumption,” explains Andie Lee Gonzalez, PhD, MPH, RDN, LD, FAND, nutrition services medical sales representative, who was named a Supermarket Dietitian of the Year by PBH for this initiative.
Customers enrolled in SNAP, or the UDSA’s Supplemental Food Assistance Program, can benefit from the Double Up Food Bucks program at SpartanNash, a Grand Rapids, MI-headquartered distributor that operates 157 corporately-owned supermarkets. The program helps SNAP customers increase their access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
“Double Up is currently offered in 43 SpartanNash stores in Michigan and allows SNAP customers in the state to earn free produce, with a focus on purchasing locally grown fruits and vegetables. I often work closely with the company’s community engagement team to connect with and leverage nonprofit partners to promote these and other initiatives,” says Stephanie Edson, MS, RDN, LD, LMNT, nutritionist and wellness specialist.
In March 2019, Giant Food partnered with non-profit DC Greens and AmeriHealth Caritas to offer a Produce Rx program, notes Griffith. “Through the program, customers who are Medicaid beneficiaries through AmeriHealth Caritas DC and who are currently experiencing a diet-related chronic illness can receive a prescription for fruits and vegetables from their healthcare provider and fill the prescriptions at the Giant pharmacy in my store. When filled each week, our pharmacist provides the customer with a $20 coupon to be used to purchase fresh produce and connects them with my nutrition services, such as classes and/or an individual consult.”
THE FUTURE: RD’s ROLE CONTINUES TO GROW
An expanded presence in the broader retail arena, a move into managerial positions and a greater online presence are some of the ways RDs’ roles will expand in the future.
“We’ve moved away from the term Supermarket to Retail Registered Dietitian because more RDs are being hired by retailers such as convenience stores and pharmacies like Walgreens and CVS,” says Annette Maggi, MS, RDN, LD, FADA, executive director of Retail Dietitians Business Alliance, Santa Monica, CA.
A big opportunity for retailers and RDs on the horizon is online shopping. Consider that 70% percent of U.S. shoppers could be buying groceries online as early as 2022, according to data from Farmington Hills, MI-based consulting firm, Invesp. Several RDs are already working in this area, including Ellie Wilson, MS, RDN, CDN, senior nutritionist at Price Chopper, a 134-store chain that along with the Market 32 banner is owned by the Schenectady, NY-based Golub Corporation.
“Our Family Meals page, located under the Shop Online button on our website, enables me to engage and influence consumers right as they are doing their shopping online. For example, Meal Maker ideas are tied into specific selections, many of which are fresh produce, and some of which are on sale,” says Wilson.
Finally, tele-nutrition services, one-on-one nutrition appointments provided via 2-way video chat, are ways Kroger Health RDs capitalize on the shifting retail trend toward more digital services. During an appointment, an RD can guide participants to use kroger.com to build an online basket for pick up or delivery.
“There may be shopper hesitation in trusting someone else to select their produce. In the process of building a nutrient-dense basket with a shopper, the RD builds trust in fresh produce selections. RDs are a trusted resource to teach which produce items are best for the shopper’s needs and lifestyle,” says Kroger’s Wojciak.