Supermarket dietitians are turning up the volume on the ‘eat more fruits and veggies’ message
With new vigor, supermarket dietitians are busy promoting fresh produce.
They're driven by national initiatives, their employers, and by informed, health-conscious consumers.
With the national spotlight trained on childhood obesity, and the public's attention focused on particular diet-limiting illnesses, fresh produce is a natural — in more ways than one.
“As a dietitian, I can say we're in an incredibly exciting time,” said Sue Moores, registered dietitian, at 9-unit Kowalski's Markets, St. Paul, Minn.
“In all the years I've been practicing, I've never seen such conversation going on [about healthy eating],” Moores said.
“Everyone from Jamie Oliver to Oprah to Dr. Oz and Senator Tom Harkin, [D-Iowa] is pushing healthy eating. It's astounding.”
Carrie Nielsen, one of the registered dietitians at an Omaha, Neb. Hy-Vee Store, seconded that thought.
She said consumers in general are showing new interest in fresh fruits and vegetables, and so are Hy-Vee customers. They're registering a lot of concern about healthy eating, and she and other dietitians are responding.
“We're doing more in produce this year. It's easy and it's effective,” Nielsen said.
“We wash a fruit or vegetable, cut it up, sample it. We can see the customer's reaction right away, and can talk to them about it. It's great for interaction.”
Officials at West Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee's corporate office also told SN the chain is putting a heavier focus on produce.
“Our dietitians definitely will be putting more emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables this year,” said Ron Coles, assistant vice president, produce purchasing for Hy-Vee Stores.
“They're working hard with our customers to point out the nutritional value of those,” Coles said.
“Certainly it'll help that Michelle Obama is a spokesperson for eating healthy. It'll add strength to our message to consumers.”
“We use the NuVal system, and our dietitians will be showing customers how the numerical system falls out in produce.”
Nielsen, one of 135 in-store dietitians employed by Hy-Vee, said she's currently implementing events in her store's produce department that come under an umbrella program initiated by the chain's corporate dietitians. It's called “Eat Veggies - See Well.”
People usually think of carrots when they think of a vegetable that's good for their eyesight, but Nielsen pointed out that there are other vegetables that deal out the same benefit. They include sweet potatoes, squash, kale and spinach.
“I haven't decided yet what I'll do with the theme in produce, but I'll probably sample some fresh spinach, maybe in a salad,” Nielsen said.
“I always give customers a recipe to take away with them, too.”
Nielsen said she particularly likes to do demos.
“I can show people how to cut a mango or introduce them to a new variety of apple. It gives me a good opportunity to talk to customers, and it's a department where you just can't go wrong. Low carbs, and everything healthy.”
Tina Miller, registered dietitian at a Meijer store, said much the same thing about the produce department's immense variety of good-for-you items.
“We use the NuVal system, and you'd have a hard time finding something in produce with a score lower than 91,” Miller said.
“We've always focused on fruits and vegetables at Meijer, so we're doing pretty much the same things we've been doing. Under the banner ‘Meijer Fresh,’ the company motto is, ‘We are going to have the highest quality at the best prices,’ and we dietitians latch onto that and go!”
On May 5, Meijer will be participating in a local “Diabetes Academy” that draws 200 to 300 people.
“We'll promote the top 20 foods that are particularly good for diabetics, and out of those 20 items, 15 are fresh produce,” Miller said.
One of the popular myths — among consumers who either don't want to take the time or who feel pinched financially — is that eating healthy is expensive, and Miller is emphatic about stamping out that myth.
“We tell our customers to watch for what's on sale, and that fruits and vegetables in season are really inexpensive,” Miller said.
“For instance, California strawberries are at peak season right now, and we're offering them for $1.50 a quart.”
The chain also has produced a chart showing what is in season during each month of the year in order to make it easier for customers to watch for items that are a good value.
“It's the second year we've used that, emphasizing that eating produce is not expensive if you buy what's in season,” Miller said.
At United Supermarkets, Lubbock, Texas, registered dietitian Tyra Carter also makes a big point of telling customers to watch what is in season.
“We tell them, yes, fresh green beans in January are expensive, but you don't have to buy them then,” Carter said.
She added that she and Alicia Brown, United's Dallas-based registered dietitian, are currently looking for more ways to reach customers with healthy-eating messages.
They will be meeting with communications director Eddie Owens this month to figure out how “we can increase our health and wellness promotion,” Carter said.
“We [dietitians at United] want to use public address messages so we could, for instance, tell customers about the large amount of vitamin C contained in a basket of strawberries and how that can boost their immune system.”
Carter said that materials promoting healthy eating that are supplied by vendors and organizations such as the Produce for Better Health Foundation are a particular boon to a chain such as United that has so many stores and only two registered dietitians.
“We have to make our presence known, even if it's getting our photos in our ad circular. I went to a summit conference of dietitians recently and I came away with some new ideas.”
For instance, Carter said, one speaker at the summit pointed out that something as simple — and inexpensive — as a photo of a company's dietitian standing in the produce department holding a cantaloupe can sell a lot of cantaloupes.
Thus, the endorsement of a dietitian, even if not in person, can help spread the healthy eating message and boost produce sales.
“We'll be exploring all kinds of ways we can do that,” Carter said.
Carter, like other dietitians SN talked to, puts special emphasis on teaching kids about fruits and vegetables.
“We tell parents to change the environment. Kids don't ordinarily think of fruit as a snack, but they would if there were fruit around all the time,” Carter said.
“Here in the office, we always have a big bowl of fruit, and parents could do the same at home.”
Barbara Ruhs, registered dietitian at Bashas', Chandler, Ariz., and one of the initiators of the summit that Carter mentioned, uses a bi-monthly publication, “Eat Smart,” to reach as many of Bashas' customers as she can. She writes and edits the magazine, and often uses materials supplied by Produce for Better Health, particularly those targeting youngsters.
“We have to remember that children are our future customers, Ruhs said. She added that now is the time to train their taste buds to welcome fresh fruits and vegetables. They have a lot of buying years ahead of them.
One of the pages in a current issue of Ruhs' Eat Smart publication uses a PBH game board illustration/chart on which children are encouraged to fill up spaces with stickers taken from pieces of fresh fruit they have consumed. Then, it's recommended that when the board is filled, the parent give the child a special treat.
In addition to her bi-monthly publication, Ruhs has a regular segment on a local PBS radio station. On the air, she often gives parents tips on how to get kids eating healthier.
Even online fresh food grocer FreshDirect, Long Island City, N.Y., does its part in getting kids interested in fresh fruits and vegetables — actually in growing vegetables.
In fact, the company's registered dietitian Maggie Moon told SN that FreshDirect works with a community organization that gets kids working a garden. Studies have shown that kids usually will eat what they've had a hand in growing.
Nielsen at Hy-Vee said one of her major goals is to get children to realize that a snack can be a healthy thing. It could be a slice of apple with peanut butter on it, or just fruit, she said.
Nielsen likes to go out to schools and do interesting presentations.
“Recently I made a smoothie with Greek yogurt, tart cherry juice, vanilla protein, and chia seeds. Nothing excites people like a blender.” They want to know what's in it and how it tastes.
Miller also said school visits and community events make up a large part of her week's agenda.
“Meijer believes in sending us into the community.”