Natural foods retailers have a history of putting their ideals front and center. For example, the push in 2000 to make sure the U.S. Department of Agriculture?s national organic standards properly represented organic farming practices was helped immeasurably by in-store petition efforts. And in the ongoing debate about foods with genetically modified organisms, naturals retailers have educated consumers and lobbied governments about the worrisome aspects of GMOs.
But many of the activist stances natural foods retailers have taken to date might rightly be classified as preaching to the converted. Mostly, they grab the attention of shoppers already inside the stores.
The challenge today, industry observers say, is to take the activist stance out of that realm and into the mainstream. It?s time to deliver the activist message to potential new customers. Doing so not only fits the educational mission of many natural foods retailers, but it also can bring new customers in the door.
For example, naturals stores can play a prominent role in educating customers about the problems of childhood obesity. There is probably no hotter mainstream health issue today.
?You don?t read a newspaper today without seeing an article on the obesity problem,? says Jessica Reich, director of food quality policy at California Food Policy Advocates.
There is a prominent role waiting to be played by natural foods retailers in the campaign to help Americans—especially kids—lose weight, she says. That role involves working outside the store and inside public schools.
?There are nutritional standards set by the USDA for the national school lunch and breakfast programs. It?s essential that there be natural products out there that meet those standards,? she says. ?There is a myth out there that all kids want to eat is soda and chips. It?s not true.?
But public schools also are under financial constraints, she says. ?They would welcome natural products that meet both the standards and their financial requirements.?
Natural Ovens, a Manitowoc, Wis.-based natural foods bakery, provides an example of how a market can work with a school. Through its Nutritional Resource Foundation?s Peak Performance program, the bakery in 1997 ?adopted? an alternative high school in Appleton, Wis.
?We gave the school a $100,000 grant to put in a kitchen and to begin a healthy foods program,? says Janette Faul, coordinator of the Peak Performance Program. The bakery also trained the school?s chef. The program?s goal is to teach kids how to make healthy food choices. It turned out to be just one of many positive changes for the alternative school and its students. According to school district officials, after five years the number of students at the school who have dropped out, been expelled, been found using drugs or carrying weapons, or who have committed suicide has been reduced to zero. Chelle Blaszczyk, Natural Ovens? sales, communication and marketing manager, says the company has never tried to quantify the return it received from the Appleton Central Alternative High School project. But its success recently landed the bakery a spot on ABC?s Good Morning America. The bakery?s program also has been the subject of numerous national newspaper articles.
?You can?t buy that kind of advertising,? Blaszczyk says.
Natural foods retailers can build on Natural Ovens? experience if they want to work with public schools, Reich says. ?Within the school lunch program are components that could be provided by natural foods retailers. And lots of schools have vending machines; that?s another place natural foods retailers could fit in,? she says.
In January, the American Academy of Pediatrics, in a policy statement on childhood obesity, recommended the elimination of sweetened drinks from school vending machines. In California, Reich says, public elementary and middle schools cannot serve soda pop of any kind.
At least one natural products retailer has explored working with schools. Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Oats Markets has floated a pilot program that would allow the retailer to deliver fresh produce and other natural foods to Colorado public schools.
?We?ve run into walls up until now because of contracts the school districts already have with foodservice companies and with Coke and Pepsi,? says Sonja Tuitele, Wild Oats? director of corporate communications and investor relations.
Another roadblock Wild Oats has encountered—one that also would stymie many other natural foods retailers—is how to deliver products to school kitchens. ?We don?t self-distribute,? Tuitele says. ?We don?t have our own trucks.?
A way around that roadblock might be to work with parents, or perhaps a parent-teacher organization, to set up a delivery to one central location, she says.
Going through a PTO is key, agrees Sonya Kugler, president of Highland Park, Ill.-based Natural Needs Marketing, an organic and natural foods marketing and event company. ?It?s the retailer?s obligation to educate,? she says. And that includes educating parents. ?It?s part and parcel of this industry.?
There are other mainstream health issues besides obesity that retailers can tap into to attract new customers, observers agree. One of them is cancer. Retailers, could, for example, partner with oncology doctors or hospitals to provide information about how natural supplements and personal care products can mitigate the effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
Wild Oats has experimented with a variation on that theme. The retailer?s Colorado-based nutritionist works with a cardiology group in that state, educating patients on the links between healthy food and a healthy heart. ?She gives out Wild Oats coupons for patients to use,? Tuitele says.
There are many other mainstream public health issues for which natural foods retailers can advocate and attract the attention of shoppers. The key to finding them is keeping up with mainstream health trends. That?s how you know where your constituents are, Kugler says. ?And they?re not always where you think they?re going to be.?
Nancy Nachman-Hunt is a free-lance writer in Boulder, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 3/p. 72, 74