ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Hannaford Bros. has built a competitive edge with multiple efforts to educate customers about healthier eating, a panelist at the Whole Grains Council's fourth international conference told attendees here.
Whole grain products play a big part in the effort, said Connie Clifford, manager, healthy living, consumer education for the Scarborough, Maine-based company.
Whole grain products and other healthy items are featured at community events — a long schedule of them — that involve partnering with such diverse entities as Aetna Insurance, L.L. Bean, Boy Scouts and the YMCA, Clifford added.
SN interviewed Clifford just after the conference — “Make (at least!) Half Your Grains Whole” — had ended.
A recent event at the YMCA in Freeport, Maine, starred Kashi cereal, which got good reviews from kids who had never tried it, Clifford said. What was particularly encouraging, she added, was that some of the children already were familiar with the product.
“Kashi does a good job. We like their products. That's the cereal I give my 2-year-old son.”
At the April 18 YMCA event, “Healthy Kids Day,” Hannaford also offered bananas and Dannon low-fat yogurt for snack time.
In addition to putting a focus on eating healthy, the event emphasized exercise, orchestrating such events as a mini-triathlon for children ages 6 to 10, and a tai chi class.
Until recently, Hannaford had paid for the healthy food samples it distributed at community events and at schools, but now it's trying a sponsorship arrangement whereby manufacturers donate products.
Kashi, Fresh Express and Dannon recently signed on as sponsors, which may enable the chain to expand its educational activities in-store and at community events.
Clifford said that at least 10 to 15 such community events that put a focus on healthy eating and physical fitness are scheduled by the 165-unit Hannaford chain every month.
All that activity could not be possible without a line-up of professionals employed by Hannaford, Clifford said. Indeed, she pointed out that every store in the chain has a registered nurse on-site and that the company employs a large team of registered dietitians.
“We started out in 2005 with four registered dietitians [who bear the title of nutrition coordinator at Hannaford] and now we have 25,” Clifford said.
They cover 34 stores and teach about 103 classes a month on subjects ranging from controlling blood pressure via diet to finding easy ways to include more whole grains and other fiber in meals.
Emphasizing that Hannaford, a Delhaize-owned company, was one of the first supermarket chains to take a proactive stance in educating people about nutrition, Clifford pointed to the company's Guiding Stars nutrition education program, which is flourishing at Hannaford stores. The program also has been licensed out to selected companies, including Bloom, Food Lion, Sweet Bay and some school districts since its inception in 2006.
In short, the Guiding Star program involves assigning one, two or three stars to products based on their nutritional value, which is analyzed by Hannaford's team of food scientists.
One year after the program was launched, customers were buying starred products at a 4-to-1 ratio when compared with non-starred products, officials told SN at that time.
And the pace continues.
“The starred products sell much better than those that don't have stars, and people keep telling us how much they value the program.”
The stars, affixed to shelf tags, are seen in big numbers in the fresh-food departments, Clifford said.
“Produce is easy. And in the in-store bakery, we've increased the number of starred items. In 2006, just 41% of our bread and rolls qualified for stars. Now that's up by 9% or 10%, to about 51%.”
Evaluating products, many of which also qualify for whole grain status, is an ongoing process, Clifford explained. It's not just new products that get evaluated. Regular reevaluations are scheduled because sometimes manufacturers change their formulations, she said.
Some attendees wanted clarification about how a product qualifies to be designated as a whole grain product.
Some confusion hovers over whole grain designation partially because of a lack of consistent government standards, said Cynthia Harriman, director, food and nutrition strategies at Boston-based Oldways/Whole Grains Council.
“Fully one third of our attendees stayed after the conclusion of the regular sessions to attend a special workshop on harmonizing the many conflicting government standards for defining a whole grain food,” Harriman said.
The conference ended on a positive note. Several speakers, including an editor at Parents Magazine, said they've mandated that whole grains must replace refined grains as ingredients in recipes they publish or distribute.