Consumers may head to their local grocery store, rather than the doctor's office, to learn how to make healthier dietary choices.
Conventional chains such as Carlisle, Pa.-based Giant, Springfield, Mass.-based Big Y and Grand Rapids, Mich. -based Meijer all provide onsite dieticians and nutritional classes for health-conscious consumers. And, it appears the trend is catching steam as earlier this week, Steve Smith, CEO of Abingdon, Va.-based Food City announced a new partnership with University of Tennessee Medical Center to expand a program the hospital started in 2006 that shows people how to cook healthy.
The Healthy Living Kitchen program aims to teach customers healthy habits through cooking classes and education classes on nutrition and label reading.
According to a 2010 consumer survey conducted by Delicious Living magazine and iVillage in which nearly 5,000 people participated, 73 percent of respondents said they read labels carefully while 36.5 percent said they were confused by the nutritional information available and nearly 17 percent did not know what to eat to stay healthy.
"As the leading supermarket in our region, we have a responsibility to our customers, associates and community to do all we can to educate [customers] on the importance of making wise decisions with regard to their purchases," Smith said in a release.
While bigger chains such as Meijer and Giant keep a handful of nutritionists on staff, experts say partnering with larger, trusted health providers, as Food City did with UTMC, is a much cheaper way to provide information to customers—an idea that's not new to most natural stores.
Classes on cooking therapeutic foods are often packed at Puget Sound Consumer Co-op, a natural foods chain based in Seattle that partners with local naturopaths and teachers to offer programs to consumers.
"Educating consumers at the store level is a brilliant move," said Michelle Babb, RD, and adjunct faculty member at Bastyr University who teaches at PCC Markets. "[The store] offers a fabulous guided "walk, talk and taste" tour through their markets. In fact, I believe they have one of the biggest cooking class programs in the nation."
As the country continues to increase its focus on exercise and healthy diet through programs such as Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign and the National Salt Reduction Initiative, Bill Crawford, director of retail publishing programs for New Hope Natural Media, suspects providing nutritional information will be seen less as an added value and more as a requirement for stores.
“More and more grocers are seeing an opportunity to connect with shoppers by using dieticians as a resource," says Crawford who is also a professor at Southern Nazarene University. "On the other end of the spectrum, however, we’ve seen a number of grocery chains, typically smaller chains struggling in competitive markets, eliminate their staff dietician position – and lose significant sales in the natural and organic, wellness category as a result.”