When Hy-Vee  dietitian Amy Pleimling was in school, her career prospects were limited to hospital work with in-patients (who weren't necessarily interested in her advice), or a job with one of the government's supplemental nutrition programs.
Though the odd sports nutrition opportunity may have presented itself, jobs counseling everyday folks were few and far between. But now that health and wellness has entered retailers' consciousness, that's all changed.
Brimming with opportunities to positively impact public health, supermarkets have secured a spot amongst the most desirable workplaces for health professionals.
“Ten years ago, dietitian was strictly a clinical-type position. But today there are a plethora of opportunities, and supermarket dietitian is a really exciting one,” Natalie Menza, Wakefern 's corporate dietitian, told SN.
Indeed, four years into her tenure as registered dietitian at the Albert Lea, Minn. Hy-Vee, former clinical dietitian Pleimling, has found her niche.
“For me it's an ideal position since it's a way to communicate with people who are out and about. They're healthy, happy and here of their own free will,” she said.
Registered dietitians aren't just finding employment with supermarkets, but in some cases steering a food retailer's wellness strategy while donning such varied hats as spokesperson, life coach, school teacher and even private-label developer.
Their efforts are inspiring change in the shoppers they serve, but consumers aren't the only ones taking notice. “They are gaining a louder voice at the corporate level,” said David Fikes, director of consumer/community affairs and social responsibility for the Food Marketing Institute, Arlington, Va.
Even store-level dietitians are making a name for themselves among higher-ups.
Hy-Vee believes so strongly in their worth, that it's hired more than 165 for its stores and is actively recruiting enough to have a presence in each of its 220 locations. Hy-Vee also has three corporate dietitians who report to Helen Eddy, assistant vice president of health and wellness for the West Des Moines, Iowa-based chain, on its payroll.
“Our objective is to have dietitian services available, in some form, in all of our stores by the end of the year,” Eddy told SN.
Since rural areas tend to have shallow talent pools, dietitians are sometimes shared with a local hospital. In smaller stores, access may be limited to a day or two per month.
In more substantial locations supermarket tours, one-on-one consultations, cooking lessons, biometric testing and conducting a proprietary behavior modification class called Begin, are job responsibilities.
The 10-week Begin course helps “clients” — including Hy-Vee associates, shoppers and employees of local businesses — regulate food intake and develop a fitness routine. Weekly hour-long meetings cover portion control, emotions and eating, reading food labels, eating right and physical fitness.
Staff members are also developing their own programs and bringing them out to the community.
Last fall, dietitians Sarah Nelson and Lindsay Lannan — affiliated with Hy-Vee stores in Sioux City, Iowa — developed a program that teaches first- and second-graders about healthy food and how to use the NuVal nutrition scoring system that was adopted by Hy-Vee. NuVal rates foods on a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 being the most nutritious.
Field dietitians also lend their expertise to the Healthy Schools Partnership — a school-based program that integrates a nutrition curriculum with physical education. “We consider that part of their job, to get out and get involved in local schools,” Eddy said.
Hy-Vee dietitians are also encouraged to execute original programs in-store. “We want our dietitians to have the freedom to develop the programs out of their stores that they think resonate with their consumers,” said Eddy. “Actually our best ideas come in from the store.”
Two such programs executed by Pleimling were recently lauded at the corporate level. The first was so successful that it's being tested in six additional Hy-Vee locations. It involves replacing sugary snacks in checkout lanes with better-for-you options.
A single lane originating in Pleimling's home store includes foods rich in antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and fiber, or so-called Blue Zone foods — those consumed in places in the world where inhabitants are longest living and happiest.
The lane is an offshoot of the AARP/Blue Zone Vitality Project, brought to the community by renowned author and Blue Zone explorer Dan Buettner, to add 10,000 years to residents' lives.
Pleimling supported the effort in Center Store aisles with Blue Zone shelf tags, but the positioning of items like soy nuts and Hy-Vee brand no-sugar-added dried peaches at checkout is what drove sales 60% and 63%, respectively.
Branded slightly differently in pilot stores, mom-friendly “Healthy Bites” lanes feature healthy snacks for kids such as fruit leathers, 100-calorie packs of Nabisco Ritz Bitz crackers, Pepperidge Farms Whole Grain Goldfish crackers, Kind bars, baked chips and fresh fruit.
“So far they've been very, very well received by shoppers,” Eddy said.
My Super Cart challenge also caught the attention of Eddy and her team. The brainchild of Pleimling, it encourages shoppers to try nutrient-packed foods that they normally wouldn't. The program is a success.
“A dozen shoppers said, ‘I'd never tried soybeans or tofu, but now it's a staple in our diet,’” noted Pleimling.
The program rewards shoppers for purchasing so-called “superfoods” like edamame, blueberries and tuna, with a free superfood.
Purchases are recorded on a punch card with 20 slots. Once the card is full, the shopper earns the superfood of her choice. Completed cards are entered in a drawing for a $50 Hy-Vee gift card.
About 120 shoppers participated in the first version of the 3-month program. Some bought as many as nine superfoods at a time, earning the free item within a few trips.
“Many choose chia seeds. They're kind of expensive so they feel it's a great value getting it for free,” said Pleimling.
Only superfoods tagged with a bright pink shelf sign are part of the program, since they're coded as such at the point of sale. There are 55 throughout the store.
The latest iteration of the challenge kicks off this week with an event where Pleimling will demonstrate recipes for sweet potato fries and edamame salad.
She'll email participants weekly recipes that include superfoods, and ask them to submit recipes of their own, using the most superfoods possible. The winner gets a $10 Hy-Vee gift card.
As it builds its reputation as having one of the most progressive health and wellness programs in the industry, Hy-Vee relies on the ingenuity of store dietitians like Pleimling to set it apart.
“I always say we don't solve things here at the corporate office, it's really the creativity and innovation at store level that makes our program so strong,” said Eddy.
Hy-Vee is actively engaging consumers at a time when about 8% say their local store has a dietitian, and 37% use their services, according to FMI's 2010 U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends survey.
But even when a shopper is aware of a dietitian's presence, they may not see themselves as an appropriate recipient of their advice.
“A lot of times customers believe that if they don't have a specific disease state then they may not need a dietitian, so we try to show them how we can be helpful in their everyday lives,” said Eddy.
That starts by hiring friendly health professionals.
“We're really looking for dietitians who are outgoing,” Eddy said.
Hy-vee also requires that its dietitians take media training, which is co-sponsored by the Midwest Dairy Association.
Though a large portion of registered dietitians specializes in areas such as diabetes management, according to the American Dietetic Association, Chicago, a specialty isn't required for employment at Hy-Vee, Eddy said.
Instead the chain encourages staff members to develop their skills.
To maintain registered status, dietitians must complete at least 75 credit hours in approved continuing education classes every 5 years.
Hy-Vee motivates its registered dietitians to train in accredited areas that both interest them and will benefit consumers.
“We've encouraged and supported a number to become CDEs [certified diabetes educators] and we're looking at expanding training in weight management and sports nutrition,” Eddy said.
Another accredited program that Hy-Vee steers them toward is Health Coach — intensive training that helps dietitians effect change in customers' lives.
Another is LEAP (Lifestyle Eating and Performance) food sensitivity training.
Diagnosed with a blood test, food sensitivities can trigger symptoms such as migraines and irritable bowel syndrome. The training educates dietitians about removing these foods from sufferers' diets and gradually reintroducing them, Eddy said.
“We have six that have been through the training and another 20 are getting ready to go through,” she said. “The ones who've completed it are getting referrals from physicians and starting to work with customers.”
Shoppers are so appreciative of services like these, they commonly express their gratitude in letters.
“When you see the way [dietitians] touch and improve their lives it just about brings tears to your eyes,” said Eddy.