One of the fastest-growing job classifications in the supermarket industry is the registered dietitian. Sometime in the late 1990s, registered dietitians started being hired by the larger chainstores at the corporate level to boost the health and wellness reputation of retailers among its consumers. Today, more and more chains are hiring RDs at the store level.
“In the early 2000s, we started hiring dietitians at the store level,” said Allison Yoder, health and wellness supervisor, Eastern Region, for Hy-Vee Inc., a midwestern chain of 235 stores headquartered in Des Moines, IA. “Our goal is to have a dietitian in every store, and we are just short of reaching that goal.”
She said that Hy-Vee currently has dietitians in 195 of its stores, making it one of the leaders in hiring RDs in supermarkets in the nation.
“It is definitely a trend,” she said. “More and more supermarkets are moving in that direction. At the last conference I attended, I met a registered dietitian that had started with her supermarket 13 years ago,” indicating that she would have been one of the early pioneers in that job classification.
At Hy-Vee, Ms. Yoder said that the registered dietitian’s job encompasses many duties. She, or he, is the health and wellness expert for each store, interacting with customers, other employees and the news media. Ms. Yoder said the goal is to establish Hy-Vee as a health and wellness venue for the community.
The RD, she said, gets involved in many in-store promotions to help teach the consumer good nutrition through their healthy food choices. Ms. Yoder said that during the training period, each dietitian is taught that all food can be part of a healthy diet.
For example, during a recent potato chip promotion, the corporate registered dietitian, working with the company’s chef, developed a recipe that incorporates potato chips as a crust in a very healthy dish. Using another example, she said that the RD might promote milk with cookies, putting a health and wellness spin on an age-old favorite.
Ms. Yoder said that another big part of the job of the store-specific RDs is to lead storewide tours. “They might conduct a heart-healthy or a gluten-free tour of the store,” she said.
During these tours, the RD accompanies shoppers, either in groups or individually, around the store to help them choose healthy alternatives in every department. Of course, produce is a mainstay of virtually every healthy diet, including gluten-free options, she said.
“That’s a very big trend,” Ms. Yoder said. “More and more customers are looking for gluten-free diets.”
In a phrase, she said the dietitian helps shoppers make each trip to the supermarket a “food experience.”
All tours are conducted for free, and Ms. Yoder said that while some shoppers try to schedule them in advance, it is very common for shoppers within the store to join a tour when they see it occurring. This behavior, of course, is encouraged as it is the goal of these RDs to improve the health of their customers.
The Hy-Vee dietitians also actively work with the local news media to help writers better understand the health and wellness concept, and also to alert the community to the fact that these experts are available free of charge every time they walk into a Hy-Vee store.
As far as food trends go, Ms. Yoder said that the locally grown concept as well as the desire for organic produce continues to resonate with the chain’s shoppers.
“We also see more and more shoppers interested in playing a more active role in the preventative part of health care,” she said. “They want to make a difference in their own health by what they eat.”
The California Avocado Commission also noted this trend toward supermarket RDs and is increasing its participation in the effort as a way to promote avocados, which have a great nutrition story to tell.
Recently, the commission joined 70 of the nation’s top supermarket dietitians and others as a sponsor at the 2012 Oldways Supermarket Dietitian Symposium held in Savannah, GA.
Oldways, which is an internationally known non-profit organization recognized for its expertise in healthy eating pyramids, developed the symposium in collaboration with Barbara Ruhs, an RD for Bashas’ Family of Stores in Arizona, to support the work of registered dietitians in supermarkets.
The event was a unique opportunity for RDs to meet, network and brainstorm to help consumers recognize, buy and eat healthy foods. Ms. Yoder said that these types of events are very helpful to find out what other supermarket RDs are doing for their customers and to exchange ideas.
In a press release, Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing for the California Avocado Commission, said that the symposium was a great way to let this community of professionals learn about the upcoming California avocado season. “It was a great opportunity to share avocado nutrition information and innovative usage ideas for California avocados that can be used in their communication programs from mid-April through mid-September.”
Ms. DeLyser told The Produce News that the commission regularly communicates with supermarket dietitians through a newsletter aimed at that group. She said that this group is becoming increasingly important influencers at the chainstore level.
Ms. Yoder concurred, saying that the RDs at Hy-Vee work with produce managers and others to develop promotions and healthy food options that are sold at that supermarket.