Ever wish you could moonlight as a dietary fairy godparent, whispering advice in your clients' ears as they walked the aisles of the grocery store? While the perks of the job may not include a magic wand, for many registered dietitian nutritionists, advising consumers while they shop for food isn't just a fairy tale.
"It's on an upswing right now," explains Linda McDonald, MS, RD, LD, former publisher of Supermarket Savvy, an online resource for supermarket dietitians. "Consumers are showing more of an interest in nutrition education, so supermarket chains have been hiring registered dietitians."
It makes sense, industry observers say, in a time when grocery shopping can mean thinking about things such as trans fat labeling, gluten allergies or the dietary needs of diabetics.
"There are trends and issues that lend themselves to having RDs in stores," says Shari Steinbach, MS, RD, a healthy living manager for the Meijer store chain in the Midwest. "One is population trends, like aging baby boomers with special diets. Another is spending trends. People aren't cooking the way they used to; they want to know how to put together meals that are quick, easy and a good value."
History and Evolution of Supermarket RDNs
Employing RDNs isn't a novel idea. Since at least the early 1980s, dietitians have been giving supermarket tours, and a diverse wealth of opportunities sprang from there. "Now there are dietitians who do a lot of PR work," says McDonald. "Some are even being employed through the marketing department instead of consumer affairs."
Other frequent duties for the RDN? Well, this includes anything from developing recipes, educating employees, staffing nutrition hotlines and advising on food safety to writing articles for the store's website and fliers.
At Midwest grocery chain Hy-Vee, for example, in-store dietitians lead shopping tours, conduct health screenings and offer individual medical nutrition therapy at 85 of its locations. Donna Dolan, MS, LD, RD, and former corporate dietitian at Hy-Vee, says employing RDNs can positively affect sales. "We put a sign in the meat case that listed the top 10 leanest cuts of beef and pork, and those items were suddenly selling," says Dolan.
Job descriptions of in-store RDNs aren't the only evolving aspects of the industry. The types of positions available have also shifted, with more dietitians being hired in corporate offices and other diverse roles, says Jane Andrews, MS, RD, nutrition and product labeling manager at Wegmans Food Markets, who started as the East Coast company's first registered dietitian 26 years ago.
"At the time, I mainly answered nutrition questions and developed brochures. In the eighties, only five or six supermarkets across the country had dietitians. It's been a gradual increase since," Andrews says.
And not all corporate positions focus on customers either. Sandi Davis, MS, RD, LD, was hired by Walmart in 2005 to provide nutrition education to Walmart associates — more than a million of them. She started by focusing on Walmart's Arkansas home campus, making healthful food recommendations for nine cafeterias that serve 12,000 employees and teaching classes at the company's fitness center on subjects ranging from sports nutrition to healthy eating for the whole family.
The Multiplier Effect
Dietitians say they are impressed by how many customers can benefit from their expertise, even customers they never see.
"The supermarket is the greatest place ever to see the multiplier effect," says Dolan. "I would share nutrition information with a produce manager or pharmacist, and they could share it with hundreds of people each day."
Cindy Silver, MS, RD, LDN, has seen the impact in her work as a corporate nutritionist for Lowes Foods, a chain in North Carolina. For nearly two decades, Silver has organized Be A Smart Shopper!, a hands-on, education-based field trip for children ages 4 to 12. Available in all 108 stores, the guided tour includes everything fun and educational from brief spurts of exercise to food sampling and lobster petting. It's a prime example of the multiplier effect as well, reaching 22,000 children in one year. "Getting your message to that many kids is a dietitian's dream," she says.
Job openings are multiplying as well. "We're having a harder time finding RDs with the right skills than we are convincing store directors they need one," says Dolan.
What are those skills? In Hy-Vee's case, about five years experience and several years of strong clinical work are the best preparation, Dolan says. "You're confronted with questions from customers and it's so much more than you'd see in an outpatient setting. Your personality has to shine through. You can't be afraid to walk up to someone in an aisle and start talking."
If you're ready to take your own shining personality straight to the supermarket, head for the nearest local grocery store, advises McDonald. "Supermarkets often don't really know what a dietitian can do, so put together a proposal detailing what you can offer: leading tours, being available to answer questions on the store's website or writing articles if they have a newsletter."
Bring your business sense to the store along with your bright ideas. "The grocery industry is very dynamic with a very small profit margin, so you really have to prove to the supermarkets how providing nutrition education is going to impact the bottom line," advises McDonald.
And, remember that the fairy tale goes both ways: Show how you can bring in more customers, more dedicated consumers and increased sales through nutrition messaging, and you can be a grocer's dream come true.