• Funded education program for low-income families.
• Assisted in rollout of store-tour pilots in 32 markets.
• Promotes small lifestyle changes for better health.
It’s a fact that 17.2 million American households, or 14.5%, were unable to consistently put food on their tables for their families last year — a rate that is the highest in the 16 years since the government has been tracking food insecurity.
The statistic remains the same this year and makes ConAgra Foods Foundation’s support and development of Shopping Matters, an in-store educational tour launched last year for low-income families on a restricted budget, all the more timely.
Shopping Matters is based on research that shows that careful food shopping practices and nutrition label use are associated with better dietary quality. In another study, low-income mothers who possess basic food and financial skills, such as knowing how to stretch their groceries, prepare meals and make a budget, were shown to experience food insecurity at about half the rate as mothers who lacked such skills.
The program, a subsidiary of the nonprofit Share Our Strength’s (SOS) Cooking Matters, also is supported by the Walmart Foundation, Bentonville, Ark. Following ConAgra’s support of test pilots last year, Wal-Mart Stores  is committed to promoting and rolling out Shopping Matters more extensively this year. The Walmart Foundation is offering $500 mini-grants to facilitators who conduct the program in stores. About 100 mini-grants will be available in the next six months, said SOS executives.
“At Walmart, we’re committed to helping families live better and this program shares that mission by educating shoppers on how to shop for healthier food items while still paying attention to price, ” said Julie Gehrki, senior director business integration, the Walmart Foundation in a prepared statement.
ConAgra began its partnership in 2008 through the Cooking Matters program. “We have provided more than $5 million in grants with the primary goal being to help expand Cooking Matters reach and ability to support low-income families. We were drawn to this program, in particular, because it uniquely combines a variety of skills that low-income families can use to be better able to provide their children with healthful meals on a limited budget,” said Stephanie Childs, director of Foundation & Cause, ConAgra Foods Foundation, Omaha, Neb., in a written statement.
To date, just over 400 store tours have been conducted, including those in the 32 test pilot markets, with about 1,900 participants. Among major chains hosting one- to two-hour tours at a store are: Albertsons, Giant Food, Hannaford Supermarkets, Hy-Vee, Kroger, Meijer, Publix, Safeway, Stop & Shop and Wal-Mart.
Janet McLaughlin, SOS director, Cooking Matters, told SN that as a nonprofit organization SOS brings credibility to the table. “We are able to do the research and develop the programs and show they really work. We aren’t holding these tours because we want to sell something to somebody. We developed Shopping Matters because we believe that having skills and information to make healthy and affordable choices in a grocery store is really critical to fighting hunger and improving health in the country.”
The teaching guide given to Shopping Matters’ volunteer facilitators is comprehensive and follows consistent, simple principles. The focus is on making healthy choices on a budget, usually $10 a day to feed a family of four dinner, which is based upon a SNAP (formerly food stamps) budget.
Tour participants are taught to examine products sold across the food aisles by looking for economical ways to buy fruits and vegetables, comparing unit prices and food labels and identifying whole grains.
Carolyn Manus, a volunteer dietitian facilitator in Detroit, who has conducted three tours at Meijer, Kroger and Wal-Mart, told SN the tours are a “life changing event for many in having the knowledge of knowing what are the healthy and nutritional foods they should eat and having the skills on how to compare products in making their food buying decisions.”
Manus said she encourages small changes “because this is a new lifestyle participants are stepping into so making small changes like switching to whole grains or cutting back on fat in milk is a big accomplishment.”
Asked what her participants have learned most about saving money, Manus said, “sometimes the name brand is not always the best way to go.”
Childs said she was impressed when she participated in a Shopping Matters tour. “I grew up in my grandmother’s grocery store, so you’d think I’d know the ins and outs of a grocery store better than others. But what I learned and what participants learned during a Shopping Matters class is that it pays to pay attention while shopping. Combined with Cooking Matters, I think Shopping Matters can give families struggling with hunger the additional skills they need to budget and plan for nutritious meals.”
Store tour participants are recruited through various community organizations such as WIC (federally funded program for women, infants and children) centers, food pantries, transitional housing or shelters, faith-based organizations.
The breakout of Shopping Matters participants using low-income programs in the last year is: 48%, food stamps; 30%, WIC; 28%, free or reduced price school meals; 26%, food pantry; 13% Head Start; and 27% listed none of the programs mentioned.
McLaughlin said Shopping Matters is a part of the SOS mission to wipe out childhood hunger. “We focus on connecting families with the food resources they need. Cooking Matters and Shopping Matters, in particular, provide the link between having access to food and food resources and to be able to maximize and use those resources in healthy and efficient ways to put healthy meals on the table night after night even with limited resources.”