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By developing innovative, customer-focused programs, registered dietitians have been a boon to supermarket produce departments

Diet-related illnesses such as type-2 diabetes are becoming more prevalent, and food allergies such as gluten intolerance are becoming more prominent. America's First Lady has embarked on a mission to end childhood obesity, and doctors' orders for older patients that suffer from chronic conditions now frequently have a dietary component.

These changes have placed America's supermarkets at the intersection of food and health, and they have made registered dietitians an increasingly common sight in supermarkets throughout the country. For produce departments, dietitians offer a great ally. They are often one of the public faces of a supermarket company, participating in interviews on local television and radio stations, giving store tours or talks at schools or local churches. Or, concocting tips and recipe ideas for weekly circulars. And, part of their message never changes — eat more fruits and vegetables.

Lately, many dietitians have been praising social media sites as an excellent, low-cost tool for reaching customers and encouraging produce consumption.

“Social media has been a really big success story for produce, specifically,” said Kim Kirchherr, Supervalu corporate dietitian for Jewel-Osco, Hornbacher's, Shop ‘N Save and Supervalu Pharmacies.

Just by writing and posting a quick question, dietitians are able to solicit feedback from their customers, which can spark and idea or help them offer information that their customers want.

“I'll ask questions of our fans, like, ‘What types of fruits or vegetables are you curious to try, but have never tried?’” said Leah McGrath, corporate dietitian for Asheville, N.C.-based Ingles Markets. “If I find that there's one in particular, I'll put up recipes to encourage people to try something new.”

In fact, McGrath asked this very question recently, and the fans of Ingles' Facebook page responded with answers like “rutabaga. It would be great to have a recipe.” And, “What does endive taste like?” About a dozen customers ultimately wrote responses to this single question, with answers ranging from parsnips to Jicama. And, McGrath wrote back, posting recipes for dishes such as baked acorn squash, mashed rutabagas, ratatouille and a Mexican Jicama snack recipe.

Similarly, Kirchherr sometimes uses Facebook's polling feature to communicate with Jewel-Osco's fans. For example, a “what's your favorite chili” poll and live chat was held to kickoff this year's NFL season, and chili with beans won out. Kirchherr followed up with comments and suggestions. More recently, she posted a poll regarding tomato recipes.

“I just asked a simple question … ‘It's tomato time, what's the most tempting taste for your tastebuds?’” she explained. “My answers were right out of hand, a caprese salad, bruschetta, your typical classic, really simple tomato dishes. And those were the answers to the poll. And the feedback and interaction that we got, just from that simple question, was so much fun to see.”

The company's Facebook page also allows Kirchherr to speak directly to Jewel-Osco's customers about hot topics like the U.S. Department of Agriculture's new Choose MyPlate dietary guidelines program, which was launched this summer, or, seasonal ideas like tips for grilling vegetables.

“We're continuing to [promote produce with] seasonality,” she said. “We had a great new apple come in recently called Sweetango, and we introduced that on the Jewel-Osco Facebook page. Got some really great feedback.”

The MyPlate messaging on Facebook has also tied in with Kirchherr's more traditional media efforts. After USDA unveiled the program in June, Kirchherr wrote a bylined article published by several newspapers and websites in the Chicago area, explaining how the program and its plate-shaped icon would replace the agency's MyPyramid graphics. Like many dietitians, Kirchherr said that the new icon, which encourages people to fill their plates half full with fruits and vegetables for every meal, was much easier to understand than the former food pyramids.

“What's great about this new symbol is its familiarity to all of us — the simplicity of a plate,” she wrote.

“That message from Choose MyPlate is so easy to understand, and it's a really great way for dietitians to [communicate],” she told SN. “You can work in seasonality, you can work in locally grown. That visual, with fruits and vegetables so prominent, has really made it a great conversation to have, to really make produce the highlight of mealtimes. It's a very easy thing for consumers to understand.”

That message has since been reinforced with local radio interviews where Kirchherr has focused on ways to get kids more involved in eating healthy. In these, she once again emphasizes starting with fruits and vegetables as the focus for every eating occasion.

“Make fruits and vegetables the first thing that you think about, and build your meal around that,” she said. “That story has been picked up successfully as well, in a variety of different outlets.”

When offering tips or produce-focused recipe ideas for Ingles shoppers, McGrath said that she often sticks with ideas for seasonal items, or products that the produce department is already planning to put on special. Those items can then be highlighted with tips in circulars, in recipes on Ingles' website, or with alerts on Facebook and Twitter.

“I also record in-store radio spots, and they will usually include a message about produce,” she said. “Especially seasonal produce — how to tell if it's ripe, suggesting alternative ways to use it, how to prepare or season it or add it to meals.”

The in-store radio spots are generally suggestions that involve simple preparations that customers may not be familiar with. An easy way to steam broccoli in the microwave, or cut it up and use it raw with dips, for example.

“In a 30-second spot, there's not time to talk about a full recipe, but I will refer customers to our website,” she explained.

But, McGrath has also learned to keep Ingles' produce departments in the loop. Occasionally, an interesting recipe idea or in-store radio tip results in a run on a specific item.

“I have to alert our produce department if I'm going to do an in-store spot about a particular type of produce, so that they're prepared,” she said. “There was a time last year when I did a spot about winter squash, and I got comments from our produce departments saying, ‘Let us know when you're going to do something like that, because everyone has been asking us about winter squash.’ So, it does translate into purchases.”

Hands-on programs at the store level tend to have good results as well. Produce departments know that even something as basic as a recipe demo or sampling of a new or unfamiliar item can help boost sales of that item. These interactions raise a customers' comfort level with an item, and encourage them to try something new.

The goal is similar with many of the programs that dietitians design for kids. Make them comfortable with trying new fruits and vegetables, and find ways to help them enjoy foods that may not be familiar.

In September, SN reported on an innovative program launched by Jen Haugen, the nutritionist for an Austin, Minn., Hy-Vee location.

Using a 40-by-60-foot plot of land adjacent to the store, Haugen's “Sprouts — Get Out and Grow” program got groups of kids excited about healthy eating by teaching them how to garden. They planted seeds themselves, and tended the garden by playing games like “plants and robbers,” where they hunted down weeds and pulled them. Later, they harvested plants like tomatoes and Swiss chard, and enjoyed recipes made with fresh vegetables they had grown themselves.

The feedback she has gotten during the intervening month has been excellent. And Hy-Vee recently asked Haugen to host a webinar and offer training to any of the company's other locations that wish to launch a similar program.

“From the beginning to the end, we did notice an increase in their liking fruits and vegetables,” she said. “We had 98% of the kids like the recipes a lot or like them a little bit,” on their final evaluations.

And, the gardening seems to have made a lasting impression on many of this year's participants. Parents have told Haugen that their kids have become more interested in helping out in the kitchen and learning to cook. One even said that their family has been making family cooking night a weekly event.

Some of the children have even helped their parents learn to eat healthier as well, by requesting salads or other recipes that they made during the class. And, Haugen has also had parents tell her that they are planning to start a garden in their own yard, thanks in part to the enthusiasm of their kids.

“They're planning to try it this coming spring, figuring out what they want to plant based on recipes that [their kids] had this past summer,” she said.

Haugen said that her inspiration for the program while working at the intensive care unit of the Mayo Clinic.

“I saw what happens when you don't take care of yourself, basically. And when I changed jobs, something that I really wanted to focus on was kids and how you can really have an impact on their health by starting at a young age and teaching them health and responsibility with the foods they eat.”