N° 93 | October 2014

Grocery Stores – Challenges and Opportunities in Promoting Healthful Foods

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In many areas of the United States public health professionals, elected offi cials, community leaders, foundations and others are engaged in strategies to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods in low income communities. Grocery stores can be part of the solution to increase access.

2311 food and beverage products were analysed

A recent study1 highlights the need to engage with grocery stores in order to infl uence the types of foods they advertise on sale. “An Analysis of Bronx-based Online Grocery Store Circulars for Nutritional Content of Food and Beverage Products” assessed the nutritional quality of foods and beverages advertised by 15 Bronx-based grocery stores with respect to the diabetes epidemic. Specifi cally, this study assessed the extent to which these grocery stores offered nutritious foods on sale in their weekly circulars. The Bronx is a borough of New York City with a high proportion of low income families and high rates of Type 2 diabetes and obesity. Over a two month period, 2,311 food and beverage products placed on the first page of online circulars for these Bronx-based grocery stores were analyzed for:

  1. total sugar content;
  2. number of starchy and non-starchy fruits and vegetables;
  3. total fiber and carbohydrate content;
  4. whether the product was processed; and
  5. sale price.

An abundance of low nutritional value foods at affordable prices

The study found that the fi rst page of grocery circulars featured a high proportion of sugar-sweetened beverages, baked goods, refined breakfast cereals, cereal grains and pasta.

Approximately 59% of the beverages advertized on sale were sugar sweetened beverages and 84% of the products were processed. Only 1.4% of the advertized specials had a fi ber content of 5 or more grams per serving and only 16.5% were for fresh fruits and green, leafy vegetables. Although this crosssectional study took place over a short time frame, the authors note it provides useful insights into a problem impacting many low-income neighborhoods, the abundance of foods of poor nutritional quality priced to sell.

In order to curb the diabetes epidemic, the authors conclude that it is important for grocery stores to participate in prevention efforts by increasing the availability and affordability of fruits and vegetables, fiber-rich foods and whole grain products. They suggest placing healthier foods prominently in grocery stores and actively promoting them to customers in low-income neighborhoods.

The SpartanNash (SN) pilot in the state of Michigan

An example of a grocery store company2 playing a leadership role in helping low income consumers purchase more fresh fruits and vegetables is SpartanNash (SN) in Michigan. Three SN stores are pilot testing a healthy food incentive program called Double Up Food Bucks (DUFB). DUFB provides low income customers who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefi ts with a dollar-for-dollar match to purchase fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables. When customers purchase any fresh produce at participating stores, they accrue matching DUFB of up to $10 per visit. The incentive dollars are stored on SN’s loyalty card system, called the Yes Rewards card. SNAP families can spend their DUFB on any Michigan grown fruits and vegetables just as they might spend any other reward points. Using SN’s loyalty card system allows the retailer, program administrators and evaluators to track shopper purchase patterns and see if the incentives have increased fruit and vegetable purchase and consumption.

Encourage other retailers to take similar actions

SN is partnering with Fair Food Network (FFN), a Michigan-based nonprofit organization, to pilot DUFB. FFN is providing funding for the incentives through grants from several foundations and leading community outreach and evaluation. SN made investments in a sophisticated and secure transaction system. To ensure a successful customer experience, FFN and SN are collaborating on communications. Prominent in-store signage promotes and explains how DUFB works. Produce is marked with Michigangrown labels. At checkout and the customer service desk, store associates hand out fl yers that explain how the program works in English and Spanish. FFN is also sending postcards to SNAP recipients’ homes in neighborhoods surrounding the stores in Grand Rapids, Battle Creek, and Detroit, Michigan.

Making sure SNAP consumers understand the potential of DUFB to increase their fresh produce purchasing power is critical for the program’s success especially given the many other ways SNAP dollars can be spent. Early results have shown that daily produce sales have been up as much as 17 per cent from the prior year. SN plans to expand to other locations to reach more low income families.

SN is excited to be the first retail grocery chain in the country to implement produce incentives for SNAP families and this will hopefully pave the way for other grocery retailers across the country to drive increased produce sales to consumers using food assistance dollars.

Other grocery retailers in the United States now have a great opportunity to scale up these types of programs by leveraging new federal funding of $100 million available in the 2014 Farm Bill3. With the goal of increasing fruit and vegetable consumption and promoting healthier diets among low-income Americans, “Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive” (FINI) competitive grants from USDA4 will provide funding for interested grocery retailers to offer programs similar to DUFB, test innovations and evaluate impact.

SN is a model for other grocery retailers interested in partnering with community organizations to increase access to more fresh fruits and vegetables in low income neighborhoods with the highest rates of chronic disease.

  1. Ethan, E. et al. 2012. An analysis of Bronx-based online grocery stores circulars for nutritional content of food and beverage products. J. Comm. Health.
  2. Gilmer, Ray. 2014. Spartan Nash Pilots Produce Incentives for Low Income Families. Grocery Headquarters: 2014-2015 Handbook of Fresh Food. http://www.groceryheadquarters.com/
  3. The Agriculture Act of 2014. U.S.Government Printing Offi ce. https://beta.congress.gov/113/crpt/hrpt333/CRPT-113hrpt333.pdf pg. 182-184
  4. United States Department of Agriculture – sept 2014 http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentid=2014/09/0215.xml
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