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Why supermarket dietitians are the next food celebrities

4 min read


Baer-Sinnott (Photo: Oldways)

Look out celebrity chefs: The next food rock stars — supermarket dietitians — have been discovered under the bright lights of the local grocery store.

Remember how as recently as the early 90s, chefs were, for the most part, really great cooks who owned or worked at restaurants, unknown to most of us? Today, people who have never eaten anything cooked by Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali and Ina Garten know them and buy their products.

While chefs will continue to exert influence over food culture in America, supermarket dietitians, more than any other food world personality, are in a special position to make a positive impact not just on what people eat, but on the health and welfare of American consumers.

Here’s why that’s so — and why Oldways believes grocery stores all over the U.S., should follow the lead of Hy-Vee, Wegmans, Giant Eagle, Meijer and ShopRite, in hiring registered dietitians in their stores. These RDs bring good health to consumers and also good financial health to the grocery businesses.

While chefs introduced us to foods (extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar), and new cuisines (authentic Italian, Mexican, Indian), they succeeded in making good eating a spectator sport — something we marvel at when the pros do it. But most people have no idea how to recreate any of the dishes in their own home.

Consider that on average Americans visit the grocery store 1.6 times per week, or 83.2 times per year. What supermarket dietitians do is provide the missing link to getting healthier foods onto kitchen tables. There is no better place for consumers to get that help than where they are buying their food — in the grocery store.

Ric Jurgens, the former CEO of Hy-Vee, a 230-store grocery chain, explained in a recent interview that they discovered Supermarket RDs were very successful, but not in a traditional sense. At Hy-Vee, while the RDs did not provide a direct increase in sales, the enhanced service and value they provided led to greater loyalty to the store and to the chain itself. Other stores have found that supermarket RDs can increase sales of healthy products through sampling, classes, demos, store tours and other initiatives.

With slim margins in the business, supermarkets are creating innovative partnerships, which help support having RDs on staff — full-time or part-time. For instance, one chain works with a major health insurer to cover a piece of the program. Other supermarkets “borrow” RDs from their local hospital or university to set up shop for a certain day each week or for special visits.

Service is clearly a big thing in retail. Hy-Vee discovered that Supermarket RDs did not just energize customers. They brought passion, energy and a quality attitude that helped other employees be better leaders and team members — an unexpected benefit.

Jurgens told the story of a call he received from a customer, thanking Hy-Vee for changing his life, after his daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. The father didn’t know what food to buy for her that wouldn’t harm her.

When he stepped into his local Hy-Vee store, an assistant manager noticed the father was upset and asked if he could help. After hearing his story, the manager introduced him to the Supermarket RD, who took him around the store, explaining what to look for, suggesting things to buy. She ended the tour by saying, if you have questions, call me.

The result: the customer’s fear was replaced with confidence. That’s the power of the Supermarket RD. And that Supermarket RD created a loyal Hy-Vee customer for life.

We have a long way to go until this experience can be repeated in grocery stores, from coast to coast. That’s why at Oldways, to usher in the era of the next food rock stars, we are calling on all supermarkets to hire RDs in every store. We are also asking shoppers to ask their local stores where their RD is, and if there isn’t one, to ask what their plans are for hiring one.

Sara Baer-Sinnott is the President of Oldways, a Boston-based nonprofit food and nutrition education organization best known for the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid and the Whole Grain Stamp. Oldways also has two educational programs designed specifically to support the work of Supermarket RDs. Hy-Vee, Wegman’s, Giant Eagle, Meijer and ShopRite participate in these programs.

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