Supermarket chains increasingly are deploying dietitians in stores to help customers navigate the sometimes bewildering array of diet trends and options, especially if they are on a tight budget.
CHICAGO — Has anyone tried quinoa before?”
No hands went up.
“We’ll try some today,” said Allison Parker, a dietitian employed by Chicago-area grocer Mariano’s, to a group of eight mothers with young children on a tour of a suburban location.
Parker is one of a growing number of registered dietitians who ply their trade in grocery stores instead of health-care settings. As consumers have turned toward food they consider healthier and more sustainable, food companies have followed suit by marketing to popular diet trends and shifting preferences.
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Such changes have made grocery shopping a downright bewildering experience, particularly for shoppers on a tight budget. What does gluten-free mean? What is good fat, and how is it different from bad fat? Do I really need protein in my Cheerios?
Increasingly, grocery stores are investing in health and wellness professionals, including registered dietitians, to help customers navigate the myriad decisions on each shopping trip, industry experts say.
“It’s growing by leaps and bounds,” said Phil Lempert, a grocery-store analyst who runs the Supermarket Guru website and who, just a few years ago, founded a trade group called the Retail Dietitians Business Alliance.
Today, about 11,000 U.S. grocery stores are served by a dietitian, Lempert said, though many dietitians — such as Parker — cover more than one store. Historically, supermarket chains have employed dietitians at the corporate level, but increasingly they’re deploying them in stores to engage with customers, he said.
“It says, we do more than just pile it high and sell it cheap,” Lempert said. “We care about your health.”
Of course, grocery stores aren’t charities. But employing dietitians pays off for retailers, either through the sale of healthful food products or the “soft” return on investment of burnishing a reputation of a healthy mission, which can lead to more foot traffic, said Joan Driggs, editorial director of Progressive Grocer, a trade publication.
Parker and another dietitian cover all 36 Mariano’s stores in the Chicago area. They lead tours for various types of customers — seniors, young professionals, low-income families, fitness fanatics — and perform cooking demonstrations. They’re also available for one-on-one consultations, which are typically set up through the pharmacy.
A registered dietitian for more than 10 years, Parker used to work for Strong Memorial Hospital in upstate New York. She said working in a grocery store, as opposed to a health-care setting, tends to be more rewarding because customers who seek her out are actively trying to eat healthier.
But it’s also challenging, she said, in part because working as a dietitian in a grocery store is a relatively new frontier.
“I love being able to make an impact on a customer right at the point of purchase, but also that can be frustrating because it’s like: How do I do that?” said Parker, 34.
About 96 percent of grocery stores are committed to expanding health and wellness programs, according to a 2014 report by the Food Marketing Institute, which surveyed 29 grocery chains estimated to represent about 6,800 stores. And 62 percent of stores surveyed employ store dietitians to help them achieve that goal.
Some companies are taking health education beyond store walls.
Akua Woolbright has led the healthful-eating outreach effort for Whole Foods Market in Detroit, talking to community members in Detroit wherever she could find them, including beauty salons, churches and schools. Next, Woolbright and a colleague plan to do the exact same thing in Chicago’s impoverished Englewood neighborhood, before and after a Whole Foods store opens there in September.
“We will give Englewood our very best, and hopefully they will receive it,” said Woolbright, who earned a doctorate in nutritional science at Howard University.
“What I think is store-nutrition programs — if they’re done right — can help weed through the many contradictory messages and help make sense of it all,” Woolbright said. “And in some communities, where there hasn’t been a large grocery store in years, and you’ve had to rely on fast food and corner stores for years, maybe there’s added opportunity for education.”
On a recent weekday, Mariano’s Parker co-led a store tour for a small group of parents and children from a city elementary school, a mostly Latino school where 98 percent of students are considered low-income, according to state data.
Starting with shots of green smoothie, the group slowly worked its way through the store’s various departments, with the bulk of the time spent in the produce, meat and dairy departments on the store’s perimeter. Parker and Sheri Brazley — a chef with Common Threads, a nonprofit that fights childhood obesity — took turns dispensing advice on how to eat healthfully on a tight budget.
Ivette Guadarrama, a parent resource teacher at the school, translated their message into Spanish for the mothers.
After the tour, Guadarrama said the last group visit to Mariano’s spurred conversation among school parents on cooking healthful meals. So she decided to bring another group.
“I’m actually more conscious of how I eat too,” said Guadarrama, 24.