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The Value of Retail Dietitians

By Leesha Lentz

Today’s Dietitian speaks with Barbara Ruhs, MS, RDN, LDN, about the rising importance of supermarket RDs and the upcoming Oldways Supermarket Dietitian Symposium.

From March 22 to 24, 2015, supermarket dietitians, industry leaders, and food experts will meet in St. Petersburg, Florida, for the fifth annual Oldways Supermarket Dietitian Symposium. Barbara Ruhs, MS, RDN, LDN, symposium coordinator, says this two-day event provides a platform for attendees to network and share ideas with the ultimate goal of improving public health nationwide.

Since more retailers are hiring supermarket RDs to bring value to the consumer shopping experience, it’s even more important for this growing community to gather and discuss issues and topics relevant to daily practice, according to Ruhs. Today’s Dietitian (TD) recently spoke with Ruhs to further examine why supermarket dietitians are on the rise, how they can be successful in the grocery industry, and what they can expect at this year’s symposium.

TD: The number of supermarkets hiring dietitians has increased significantly over the years. What do you think is driving this trend?
Ruhs: Increased competition from nontraditional retail food operators such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are driving the trend, prompting conventional retailers to hire supermarket dietitians. Conventional retailers already are operating on slim margins, so reducing prices likely isn’t a feasible long-term competitive strategy. Instead, they’re focusing on improving service as a means to edge out the competition. Offering the services and expertise of a nutrition expert and dietitian is adding perceived value to customers and potentially improving their shopping experience. Conventional supermarkets that are known to have a one-size-fits-all marketing strategy are looking for many ways to attract new and existing customers. RDNs are the perfect solution.

TD: Supermarket dietitians play several roles and perform a wide variety of duties. What are some of the most important roles they play and the duties they perform each day?
Ruhs: There are two basic types of supermarket RDs: corporate dietitians and store-based dietitians. Both perform a wide range of duties to engage customers in health and wellness, including in-store food demos featuring healthier products, recipe demonstrations that help shoppers learn how to prepare healthier meals, community partnerships highlighting nutrition resources at the local supermarket, and some perform in-store nutrition counseling and host group classes and nutrition-focused tours. 

Corporate dietitians spend time managing chainwide nutrition shelf tags to help shoppers easily identify healthier options, outreaching to local media to increase awareness of healthful food options and nutrition services available at the local grocery store, marketing and promotional planning to feature healthier products, writing and editing nutrition newsletters, using social media and digital networks to target customers with health messages, managing employee wellness programs, and working with food companies to feature brands in health-focused campaigns and programs.

TD: What types of skills do dietitians need to become successful in the supermarket industry? And how can they develop these skills?
Ruhs: First and foremost, it’s important for dietitians to understand a little bit more about the food industry and retail. There’s a lot of controversy in the dietetics community about corporate food sponsorships. Food companies have been hiring dietitians for decades, and they’ve benefited from the expertise of RDs in improving nutritional quality of products and meeting consumer needs for a very long time.

In addition, I think dietitians should have some background in public health, like understanding how you develop programs to service a wide, varying population, as well as the needs of the local community. Also, knowledge and experience in marketing, public relations, and business acumen are useful.

TD: How much of an impact do supermarket RDs have on public health?
Ruhs: They have the potential to change health care in America. That’s why I created the annual Supermarket Dietitian Symposium in partnership with Oldways, a nonprofit dedicated to improving public awareness of nutrition and healthful foods. The goal of the symposium is to bring together supermarket dietitians from all over the country to network, share ideas, and find solutions and best practices for improving public health through the retail environment. Although we work in competitive, for-profit, retail supermarket chains, we’re also health professionals committed to making a difference in helping our shoppers find healthier options. With this common goal, this symposium makes it possible to focus on the public health agenda.

TD: The 2015 Oldways Supermarket Dietitian Symposium begins this month in St. Petersburg, Florida. What will participants learn this year that they may not have learned at previous events?
Ruhs: Every year we work hard to bring in the best and most relevant speakers to discuss trends and share educational insights to help our supermarket dietitian audience better meet the needs of their shoppers. In addition to 50-plus retail chains from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom represented in the room by their supermarket RD ambassadors, we’re also hosting a variety of highly regarded speakers and organizations to be involved this year. We’re thrilled to have Jim Painter, PhD, RD, from Eastern Illinois University speaking on food psychology; Kate Geagan, MS, RD, also known as America’s Green Nutritionist; Sharon Palmer, RDN, the author of The Plant-Powered Diet; Joan Williams, RD, LDN, an expert on Hispanic shopping trends; the Kid’s Cook Monday/Meatless Monday’s Campaign; The Center’s for Disease Control and Prevention; the California Public Health Institute; and SPINS, a leading provider in retail consumer insights in the natural, organic, and specialty channels, on the agenda this year. Food companies and other retail organizations that can participate in the dialogue and the half-day food demo–sampling event are sponsoring the symposium.

This year we’re excited to have a variety of supermarket dietitians share highlights from some of their most successful retail health programs. Among the retailers sharing best practices include Hy-Vee, Loblaws (Canada), HAC Retail, Redner’s Markets, Wegmans, Dierberg’s, Meijer, Lowes, and Skogen’s Festival Foods.

— Leesha Lentz is a freelance writer based in Louisville, Kentucky.