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Two companies seize a single venue for consumer health education: The grocery aisle

NBJ Award winners for Education

Dan Fost

April 21, 2017

8 Min Read
Two companies seize a single venue for consumer health education: The grocery aisle

Why couldn’t the Motion Picture Academy give Oscars to both “Moonlight” and “La La Land”? At Nutrition Business Journal, we have no such restrictions. This year we decided to offer two awards for education to two grocery chains sharing similar goals from seemingly opposite ends of the food retail spectrum.

Colorado’s Natural Grocers and Iowa’s Hy-Vee are educating their customers in different ways from different perspectives.

Hy-Vee: Health amid the pork rinds

Millions of Midwesterners have come of age with Hy-Vee stores, a supermarket chain that started as a small general store in Beaconsfield, Iowa, in 1930 and now operates 244 stores across an eight-state region. And sure, they can find their comfort foods in Hy-Vee’s aisles: Oscar Mayer bologna, greasy potato chips, sugary sodas, doughnuts and Ding-Dongs. But if they pay attention, they’ll also find something else, something almost subversive: a message not to eat any of that junk.

That’s because Hy-Vee, whose slogan is “a helpful smile in every aisle,” wants its customers to lead healthy lives.  Hy-Vee has more than 200 dietitians and nearly 400 chefs at its stores, providing biometric screenings, one-on-one counseling, grocery store tours, culinary demonstrations and nutrition programs, as well as cooking classes and recipes.

“We need to meet our customers where they are in their health and wellness journey,” says Helen Eddy, Hy-Vee’s vice president of health and wellness. It’s the role of the company’s dietitians to show customers healthier options and help them trade up to better health. “We try to make sure that our dietitians are visible and walking the aisles,” Eddy says. “They proactively approach customers to see if they can help them.”

Hy-Vee feels it can be more effective this way. Rather than enact a Whole Foods-style ban on products made with partially hydrogenated oils, Hy-Vee stocks them, but then tries to educate people to read and understand the labels. To be effective, the store can’t afford to judge. “We don’t believe there’s good food and bad food,” Eddy says. “There’s food.”

But Eddy, who once ran Iowa’s Healthiest State Initiative, acknowledges that people could improve their diets. “One of [the initiative’s] goals is to get Iowans to eat better, and in particular eat more fruits and vegetables,” Eddy says. “We rank dismally close to the bottom in terms of consumption of those foods.”

To turn that around, you can’t just preach to the choir. Hy-Vee, says sixth generation Iowa farmer Andrew Pittz, “invites mainstream customers to find out what health is all about. You’ve got to have building blocks of health. You’ve got to start somewhere.”


Multiple touchpoints

Among Hy-Vee’s many other health and education initiatives, the company offers classes every week, including a program called “Begin” to help people lose weight, and one called “Simple Fix” that teaches people how to prepare healthy, convenient meals in advance. Hy-Vee is careful to promote these as “lifestyle management classes,” Eddy says, rather than promoting the idea of weight loss, which strikes people as an onerous burden they’ll never meet.

Hy-Vee HealthMarkets, which operate almost as stand-alone health food stores right inside the larger supermarket, provide organic, natural, gluten-free and allergy-friendly foods. Sometimes a food will make the leap from the HealthMarket to the main shelves, like Chobani Yogurt did not long ago.

Expanded immunizations at in-store pharmacies, including flu shots.

A fleet of “Hy-Vee Healthy You Mobiles” that travel throughout the region to provide health and wellness services at store events, health fairs and community activities. Never mind the bookmobile; step inside for biometric screenings, flu shot clinics, and healthy cooking demonstrations.

“Hy-Vee KidsFit,” a program led by a certified fitness trainer to make health, exercise and nutrition priorities in families’ everyday lives.

For its next move, Hy-Vee is expanding its in-store health clinics, partnering with local health care providers like the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to provide access to convenient and affordable health care services. It aims to double the number of clinics, from 55 now to 110 in 2018.

With the internet, consumers have access to a lot of information, not all of it reliable in an age of alternative facts and scientific skepticism. “There’s a lot of misinformation that’s out there about health,” Eddy says. “We think it’s important to bring evidence-based education and programs to our customers. They’re rooted in science and in the evidence.”

To that end, Hy-Vee tries not to follow fads, which can confuse customers when they fall out of fashion. “People respond to the environment around them,” Eddy says. “If you set up the environment for success, where the healthy choice is the easy choice, you start to have progress.”

It’s this concept that shows real potential to make a change. After all, the medical establishment and healthy food advocates can blog and advertise all they want about the benefits of healthy living, but they’re not in the aisle when shoppers are filling their carts. Hy-Vee has such high customer service standards that patrons are used to employees approaching them in the aisle. Why couldn’t that employee be a registered dietitian, offering a tip for a vitamin or a healthier alternative?

“Hy-Vee serves its customers as well as any conventional grocer in the country,” farmer Pittz says. “I’m so proud they’re from Iowa.”

Natural Grocers: Education disguised as a grocery store

From the day Margaret Isely founded Vitamin Cottage in Golden, Colo., in 1955, she knew the key was going to be educating people about healthier eating. Post-war America was marketing canned and processed foods as heralds of a modern age, making busy moms’ lives easier, but Isely—after a chronic illness that conventional medicine couldn’t treat—saw a return to the roots as a way to make people healthier.

“We sometimes say we are first and foremost an education company,” says Alan Lewis, director of special projects and a 20-year veteran of the company now known as Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage. “We sell carrots and crackers to make our educational services possible.”

Lewis continues, “It’s not a marketing ploy or public relations veneer like some snazzy programs we see in mass retail chains. Our customers depend on us for reliable and trustworthy science that is accessible to them. We honor where they are coming from. We help them gain an understanding to make the best personal choices.”

The company’s web site lists five “founding principles,” and nutrition education is at the top of the list. (The others are quality products, affordable pricing, commitment to community and commitment to employees.)

“Over the years,” the site says, “Natural Grocers has spent literally millions of dollars helping to empower our customers and employees to take charge of their health. This community service is the foundation upon which our business is built.”

Natural Grocers has nutritional health coaches, health and wellness experts, educated and knowledgeable employees and a resource room available at most of its 135 stores across 20 states.

When Margaret Isely started the store, she took out a $200 loan and went door-to-door. A disciple of pioneering nutritionist and author Adelle Davis, Isely sought to educate her fellow townspeople. She and her husband Philip became health crusaders after a natural foods diet improved Margaret’s health. They knocked on doors in Golden, lending books on nutrition and giving out samples of whole grain bread, returning a week or two later to discuss nutrition and take orders for supplements, bread and other natural, nourishing foods.

Natural Grocers has come a long way since those humble beginnings. Now Margaret and Philip Isely’s four children are in charge: Kemper and Zephyr Isely are co-presidents. Heather and Elizabeth Isely are executive vice presidents. They took the company public in 2012, and it continues to grow like a non-GMO cornstalk on a sunny day: From 72 stores, $430 million in sales, and $125 million in gross profits in 2013 to 126 stores, $705 million in sales and nearly $202 million in gross profits in 2016. And it’s not stopping: The chain plans to open 15 to 20 new stores this year, with an ultimate goal of growing to 1,100 stores across the country, putting it in direct competition with Whole Foods and Sprouts.

“The plan with the IPO was to raise capital for aggressive growth,” Lewis says. “There’re a lot of food deserts out there.”

Helping life flourish in those deserts will take education. “People value knowledge and they want to learn,” Lewis says. “Helping them learn is the right thing to do, and it’s the strongest business advantage we have.”

Independent retailers like Natural Grocers “are seeing a resurgence now,” he says. “Mass retailers are now selling many of the same products, but not with the personal service and deep expertise that we and other true health food stores provide.”

For instance, Natural Grocers employs a dozen nutritionists at its home office and 130 in its stores. Nutritional health coaches train staff, do outreach, give classes and coach customers—for free.

Natural Grocers takes a different approach than Hy-Vee, banning problem ingredients—no partially hydrogenated oils here. It stocks only organic produce and dairy products that meet its pasture-based dairy standards. It’s gone bag-free at checkouts (saving an estimated 200 million bags since 2009).

The Natural Grocers web site offers a nutrition library, stocked with articles on topics like gluten sensitivity, brain health, inflammation and even pet nutrition.

Personal approach

Sara Keith, 46, a Denver massage therapist, drives out of her way and past other markets to get to the Capitol Hill store. “They have a lot of material throughout the store,” she says. “In their book section, there are pamphlets that are smaller and focus on different supplements, or specific conditions. I’ve used those kinds of things as resources.”

She asks the staff for advice, especially if there’s an immediate illness.

“There was one time that I had a cough that I just couldn’t kick,” she says. “A staff member recommended a supplement of mushrooms and oxygen drops. She explained how to use them, you add them to water, and my cough was gone in a few days.”


From Nutrition Business Journal's 2017 Awards issue. To learn about all the winners, get the full issue for free in the NBJ store.

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