INDIANAPOLIS — Like its home state's NFL team, Marsh Supermarkets is enjoying a great season as a community resource in the ongoing fight against childhood obesity.
The 92-store retailer has been working with Peyton Manning, quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts football team, The Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St. Vincent and Ball State University on “Project 18,” an umbrella campaign covering diet, exercise and education in Marsh stores, public schools and at home.
“We had been working on this project for months before we kicked it off,” said Connie Gardner, Marsh's senior director of community relations.
The retailer's role in Project 18 — named for Manning's Colts jersey number — is to highlight healthful food products that meet nutritional criteria developed specifically for the program by the hospital and neighboring Ball State.
“We put a ‘Project 18’ sticker on all items in our store that are Project 18-approved,” Gardner said.
The Peyton Manning Children's Hospital also contributed expertise and resources to the program, which was originally announced earlier this year. The shelf label component at Marsh was ready in time for the Colts' football season, and will continue indefinitely, according to Gardner.
For help with the labeling, Marsh turned to Ball State in Muncie, Ind., where 10 student researchers — divided into two teams of five — used a Marsh store near the campus to examine the nutritional profiles of hundreds of foods and beverages.
“We looked at dietary guidelines that are recommended by various associations and government organizations, to find out what the best guidelines were,” noted Janet Kamiri, a Ball State student and one of the team members. “Then we put them all together and compiled them into a list to follow for our program.”
The team skipped certain categories — cookies and candy among them — but in others, the researchers turned over every box, bottle and bag to ascertain nutritional content, ingredients and health claims.
“Some of the team members spent hours and hours in the aisles, literally pulling the food off the shelf and looking at it,” Kamiri added. “There were products that turned out to be healthier than we thought, and we found brands that seemed to realize how important it is to be nutritionally sound. That was surprising.”
According to Gardner, more than 600 branded and private-label products were eventually approved to carry the Project 18 shelf tag. Marsh pulls its store brands from Topco Associates.
This is the first time the 92-store chain has undertaken nutrition labeling to this extent. Given the strong relationships between Marsh, Manning and the hospital, there was little debate that the target group should be kids, their parents and their teachers.
“If we wanted to fight childhood obesity, one of the things we knew was that parents have to know what to feed their kids,” said Kamiri. “We wanted to highlight the foods that were healthy for their kids.”
The retail component of the Project 18 campaign — called Down the Aisle — was ready in October, and Marsh hosted a news conference and day of activities for school children. Dr. Judith Monroe, Indiana's health commissioner, was present as kids from two local middle schools competed for gift cards by scrambling to find the most Project 18-approved products.
The shopping aspect of the initiative is complemented by a lesson plan developed by the sponsors that any school can use.
“We created 18 weeks of lessons for the classroom and split it up so that the first six weeks focus on healthy eating, the next six weeks on physical activity and the third six weeks more on the holistic aspect of health,” said Kamiri.
In addition, this past summer, a specially equipped Project 18 van toured more than 40 community events and reached approximately 10,000 families. The vehicle helped build awareness of the program by providing lessons on eating healthy and living active lifestyles.