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Time for Supermarkets to Showcase Nutrition

Time for Supermarkets to Showcase Nutrition

Supermarkets have crafted a host of clever promotions and merchandising devices to accommodate budget-stressed shoppers, from cents off at the gas pump to expanded private-label programs.

Convincing consumers that they can find good prices at the supermarket is easy, however, compared with what food retailers should be focusing on just as intently: persuading shoppers that supermarkets can not only save them money, but improve their health as well.

Supermarkets have been talking about being “whole health” destinations for many years. Now, with a new administration pledging changes in the health care system and the new secretary of agriculture talking about tying hunger-relief benefits to nutrition, supermarket operators are presented with new opportunities to strengthen their position in that regard.

It's not yet clear how supermarkets might benefit from an overhaul of health care — in-store clinics may play a role — but the possibility that food stamps and other benefit programs could be combined with more aggressive efforts at encouraging healthy eating should be a call to action for food retailers.

The concept of linking hunger relief to nutrition is not new, but efforts to force more healthful dietary habits on food-stamp recipients have generally not been well-received.

Under a new administration, and with USDA Secretary nominee Tom Vilsack pledging to put “nutrition at the center of all food assistance programs,” such initiatives might get a fresh look.

Supermarket operators should enter that dialogue with ideas of their own, leveraging some of the creative work they have already done to promote healthy eating, such as the initiative launched a year ago by Safeway's Steve Burd and PepsiCo's Indra Nooyi to focus on reducing obesity.

Others have already stepped up to link hunger-relief benefits to nutrition: This past summer a Connecticut-based group called the Wholesome Wave Foundation tested a program in which it doubled the value of food stamps for consumers who used them at certain local farmers' markets in three cities. The program, funded by grants from the Newman's Own Foundation and other sources, is being expanded to 10 cities this year.

That's one lost opportunity for supermarket operators, who increasingly provide just as many local, fresh and organic offerings as farmers' markets, and can combine those products with the expertise of their staff nutritionists, dietitians, clinic staff and pharmacists.

In addition, the rollout of nutritional labeling programs like Hannaford Bros.' Guiding Stars and Topco's NuVal system offer quantifiable measures of “health value” that could become part of a national discussion of nutrition programs.

It's easy for shoppers to see the benefits when they save money at their local supermarket. It's not as easy for many consumers to see the health benefits of eating well, but now is a good time for supermarkets - perhaps with a helping hand from an activist government — to connect the dots.