Hy-Vee Supermarkets Add Nutrition Coaches

Hy-vee, a leading supermarket chain based in West Des Moines, Iowa, is planning to hire 100 registered dietitians to serve its 199 Midwestern locations within the next year.

Stores are given wide latitude in how they can use the dietitians, said spokesperson Chris Friesleben, with programming including everything from supermarket tours, to managing Type 2 diabetes or high cholesterol, to cooking with organic foods. The chain already has 63 store-level diet experts.

"Some of our stores have even offered introductory yoga classes," Friesleben said. "No one can ignore the obesity epidemic anymore, and besides specific health problems, many families just want to learn to eat better. And not everyone knows what to do with a jicama."

While Hy-Vee is ahead of the curve with this chainwide effort, supermarket experts expect more retailers to follow. As an increase in health problems leads doctors to issue sterner warnings, consumers are developing an almost adversarial relationship with food manufacturers, clogging supermarket aisles as they try to decipher such claims as "Now--with more whole grains!" or "No more trans fats!"

"For supermarkets to survive, they're going to have to do things like this," said Phil Lempert, a food marketing consultant and publisher of Supermarket Guru. "Baby Boomers are aging, and have more health issues and more questions, and there's more confusion than ever," he said. Nutritionists also offer a way to differentiate from chains like Wal-Mart and Trader Joe's. "This really puts Hy-Vee in front of the competition," he said.

"Hy-Vee is making a big investment in this, and it's a very conservative company," said David J. Livingston, a supermarket consultant based in Milwaukee. "This will fill the demands of the customer, and pay off down the road."

Other chains have tried to answer more of shoppers' health questions. Last month, Hannaford Brothers Co., a Scarborough, Maine-based chain with 158 stores throughout New England, launched "Guiding Stars," a program that awards either one, two or three nutritional stars to more than 27,000 items. That program, though, "essentially just gives customers one more label they have to read," Lempert said.

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