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Supermarket Dietitians: What They Can Do for You and Your Clients
By Sharon Palmer, RD

On a sunny spring day, a group of nearly 40 supermarket dietitians from across the nation gathered in Santa Rosa, Calif., for the first Oldways Supermarket Dietitian Symposium planned in partnership with Barbara Ruhs, MS, RD, LDN, a supermarket dietitian for Arizona-based Bashas’ grocery stores. I was privileged to listen in on the conversation among these nutrition professionals, as they shared their challenges and strategies to help people lead healthier lives.

I was blown away by the inroads that supermarket dietitians are making in community nutrition today—from starting community-supported agriculture (CSA) to hosting cooking demonstrations on local news stations. While you can hardly say that there is one common job description for supermarket dietitians—some of them write their own—they clearly share one common goal: to help Americans make better food choices every day.

This force of creative, energetic dietitians, located in the very place where people make decisions about what they feed their families day in and day out, is perfectly situated to help the public in ways that other dietitians may not. “I could teach people so much more in the aisles of a grocery store than I ever could as a clinical dietitian,” said Donna Dolan, MS, RD, at the symposium. Dolan spent 10 years as a supermarket dietitian at Hy-Vee, a Midwest chain that places a dietitian in every store.

Stephanie Walker, RD, CD, a supermarket dietitian at Skogen’s Festival Foods in Wisconsin, wants to be a resource for people when they need help managing their diet. “What people hear at the doctor’s office and do in real life is a big disconnect,” she said. “There are lots of misunderstandings, doctors use big words, and patients leave and actually don’t know how to get started.”

Ten Things a Supermarket Dietitian Can Do for You and Your Patients
Connect with your local supermarket dietitians to tap into the fabulous nutrition services they provide in your community.

1. Teach people how to cook. Nobody knows better how important it is to get people cooking than supermarket dietitians; it’s their top priority. “Cooking in the supermarket aisles needs to be where it’s at,” said Judy Dodd, MS, RD, LDN, a 19-year veteran of Giant Eagle, a grocery store chain with 14 in-store dietitians.

Supermarket dietitians are involved with cooking demonstrations, cooking classes, developing recipes, and providing website resources. The level of sophistication might surprise you; at PCC Natural Markets in Washington state, the cooking class brochure reads like something you’d find at the Culinary Institute of America.

2. Educate about reading labels. Supermarket dietitians are there to help people understand nutrition labels through in-store education, brochures, articles, website resources, and shelf labeling systems. And many have pushed their stores to adopt nutrition scoring systems such as NuVal to help people make more healthful food choices.

3. Increase fruit and vegetable consumption. The produce section is probably most supermarket dietitians’ favorite part of the grocery store, and they’ll do anything to get their customers to try more fruits and vegetables. These efforts include special educational or promotional campaigns, visual store displays, and cooking programs that push produce.

Trish Kazacos, RD, corporate nutritionist at Wegmans Food Markets, said the company has “veggie coaches” in stores, encouraging customers to try new vegetables, educating them about cooking techniques, and promoting the idea of taking home vegetables to enjoy them.

4. Manage food allergies. With the rise in celiac disease and food allergies, one of the most crucial services supermarket dietitians provide is guidance on food sensitivities. They are involved with educating supermarket staff about food allergies, creating clearly labeled sections of supermarkets with gluten-free foods, and publishing allergen product lists for their customers.

PCC Natural Markets trains store staff with a gluten-free education program endorsed by the Gluten Intolerance Group and uses a shelf tag system to help customers identify gluten in products.

5. Media wellness coverage. Many supermarket dietitians are media savvy; they are well trained for appearances on radio and television spots as well as prolific authors on the social media front, engaging people through blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. “We take a multimedia approach with over 250 television spots, radio, and in-store radio,” said Karen Buck, RD, a dietitian employed at Weis Markets.

Tina Miller, MS, RD, a dietitian at Meijer supermarkets, said the company’s dietitians host a food page on a local TV website with recipes and videos, getting 1.7 million hits per day.

6. Teach kids about nutrition. There’s an emphasis on child nutrition among supermarket dietitians. PCC Natural Markets maintains a policy that every child gets to pick one piece of fruit or a vegetable for free during the shopping experience. Many dietitians host supermarket tours especially for kids, with a nutrition lesson thrown in for good measure. Dodd said, “Child health is a major initiative at Giant Eagle. In our Be A Smart Shopper program, we reach 10,000 children per year.”

7. Dispense credible nutrition information. Supermarket dietitians might as well be journalists, as they produce beautiful magazines, such as the Healthy Bites Magazine that Weis Markets puts out six times per year, brochures, and website features that educate on specific nutrition topics, teach about healthy cooking, and promote wellness.

Some supermarkets, such as Hy-Vee, have dial-a-dietitian programs in which customers can direct pertinent questions to a live dietitian. In addition, many dietitians work directly with the in-house pharmacy on related nutrition issues, such as diabetes and high blood pressure management, and direct special diabetes and weight loss shopping tours.

Leigh Lettieri Brian, RD, LD, a dietitian at Kroger, said the company’s dietitians partner with the American Diabetes Association to connect with the public through radio, cooking demos, glucose screenings, and health education classes.

8. Promote wellness programs. Many supermarket dietitians have created wellness programs—fully packaged and ready to go, often in use by the employees of the supermarket as well as other local corporations. Wegmans’ Eat Well, Live Well Program includes videos, articles, tips, and inspiring stories that challenge people to eat well.

9. Make connections in the food system. Supermarket dietitians are keenly aware of the local foods trend, and they’re helping customers connect the dots from field to fork. At Balls Food Stores/Hen House Markets/Price Choppers, Jennifer Egeland, RD, LD, helped establish a CSA in which local farmers share in their bounty with shoppers who sign up for the program.

10. Improve the RD image. While dietitians may be fighting for recognition in some fields, it’s a different experience in supermarkets, where the dietitian is proudly hailed as the resident nutrition expert. Dietitians’ photos and names are featured in brochures, magazines, and in-store displays.

Dolan said, “Hy-Vee thought it was so cool that we had dietitians; whatever we said was gold. Dietitian faces were plastered all over the store.”

— Sharon Palmer, RD, is a contributing editor at Today’s Dietitian and a freelance food and nutrition writer in southern California.