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Kaiser Will Open Natural Foods Store at Oakland HQ

April 24, 2008

3 Min Read
Kaiser Will Open Natural Foods Store at Oakland HQ

Kaiser Permanente will open a natural foods grocery on the campus of its Oakland, Calif., headquarters next year, as part of a preventive health care campaign.

The nation?s largest health plan has teamed up with the Food Mill, a 71-year-old grocery in the heart of Oakland, which will run the new 2,000-square-foot store across the street from one of Kaiser?s hospitals. The store should open in January.

The move is part of a broader effort by Kaiser to create and promote healthy foods, said Loel Solomon, director of community health for Kaiser. The health plan has 8.2 million members, 30 hospitals in 10 states and annual revenue of $22.5 billion.

?We know we have to do more than tell people to live healthy. We have to create options and make it easier to do the right thing,? Solomon said.

There?s a reason for Kaiser?s effort. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed the duo of inactivity and poor nutrition as the second-most correctable cause of death, behind smoking. Poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle can lead to heart disease, diabetes, cancers and obesity. A report published in 2003 in Health Affairs estimated that medical spending related to obesity and overweight may be as high as $92.6 billion annually.

The new Food Mill store will promote cooking at home rather than eating fast food, and it will sell mainly produce, bulk foods and spices, as well as low-glycemic-index foods. The few prepackaged meals sold will be portion-controlled and doctor-approved.

Recipes and cooking classes also will be available, and store staff will include a full-time dietitian. ?The emphasis of this store is to help people achieve and maintain their ideal weight for the rest of their lives,? said Art Watkins, co-owner of Food Mill.

To accomplish that, management will divide the store into sections based on medical recommendations for diet and weight loss, Watkins said. Food will be labeled for the first, second or third phase of a patient?s diet program.

When customers reach the weight-maintenance stage, they can shop in any section and, it is hoped, will understand what to eat and appropriate portion sizes, Watkins said. ?It?s teaching someone how to eat properly for the rest of [his or her] life,? he said.

Watkins admits the concept, first proposed by Kaiser doctors, might be tough to pull off. But he believes his experience and his company?s small size will help. ?We don?t have to go through a board of directors to make a decision,? he said. For 35 years, he and his brother Kirk have successfully run the 6,000-square-foot Food Mill, which caters to Oakland?s mix of nationalities and ethnic cultures.

As part of the partnership, Kaiser will provide retail space for the store, located next door to a pharmacy, and is paying for improvements on the property.

?If it works, it could be a major change in preventive health,? said Watkins.

Kaiser has been beating the drum for preventive health for many months. Starting in February, the health plan began partnering with local farmers? groups to open organic farm stands at several of its hospital locations. Customers can buy everything from peaches to organic breads and flowers.

Kaiser now has seven farm stands in Southern California and Hawaii. Five more are in the works, and another four to seven markets will arrive in 2005.

Last summer, Kaiser began sinking $40 million into an advertising campaign called ?Thrive,? which emphasizes healthy lifestyles and attempts to stem Kaiser?s flagging membership. Kaiser?s Web campaign offers personalized weight and nutrition plans, an online smoking-cessation program, and tips on relieving stress.

The planned natural foods store is a plug for the natural foods industry, said Scott Van Winkle, managing director of Adams Harkness Inc., a Boston-based investment firm. ?It?s a vote of confidence [for] the natural/organics space,? he said. Kaiser could show that, in addition to promoting exercise, companies that feed people healthier foods could potentially lower society?s overall health care burden, he added.

Jennifer Alsever is a business reporter in Denver.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 10/p. 28

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