Kroger brings solid nutrition advice to grocery store aisles

Nonprofit organization offers alternative solution

CINCINNATI -- Sarah Koeninger is not a “food Nazi.”

She says I can still eat bacon (just a couple times a week), but why not add a piece of fruit? She even admitted her own obsession with ice cream.

I always thought dietitians would be health nuts, looking down on my selection of Cinnamon Toast Crunch over bran flakes or judging the five boxes of Girl Scout cookies I stashed away in my freezer last week.

Sarah Koeninger, Kroger RDN

Koeninger, a registered dietitian nutritionist with The Little Clinic at Kroger, crushed those assumptions during a nutrition walking tour of the Hyde Park Kroger on Paxton Avenue. Interspersed between advice on understanding nutrition labels, saturated fats and supplements, her key message of moderation kept popping up.

“You don’t have to always eat right – it’s how do you balance that within your lifestyle,” Koeninger said.

Koeninger is part of a new initiative from the Cincinnati-based grocery retailer to bring nutrition experts to ground zero to encourage shoppers to make healthier choices.

“With us being in the store...we can be in the aisles helping people make those decisions and support them in their health goals,” Koeninger said. “This is where people decide what they’re going to eat. They’re making the decision whether they want this bread or that bread in their basket or to serve to their family.”

Of the 109 Kroger stores falling under the Cincinnati/Dayton division, 34 feature walk-in healthcare through The Little Clinic. Ten of those Tri-State Krogers began offering nutrition services this month on an appointment basis as part of a pilot program in Cincinnati, Columbus, Denver and Nashville.

A Problem For All Of Us 

Many of us or our loved ones could use better health habits, since the most recent Greater Cincinnati Community Health Status Survey from May 2014 showed more than six in every 10 adults in the region (65 percent) are overweight or obese.

A major problem The Little Clinic is trying to tackle is the lack of access to dietitians, which are typically only available in hospitals and doctor’s offices.

“This is our way of trying to help with preventative care rather than just reacting once someone’s been diagnosed with something,” Koeninger said.

Four dietitians are currently rotating among the 10 participating Cincinnati-area Kroger stores to provide individual consultations, group counseling, customized nutrition tours, cooking demonstrations and corporate wellness counseling. These services promise to help people manage health conditions such as diabetes or hypertension, lose weight, enhance sports performance or simply maintain good health.

So, What's the Bottom Line?

Hour-long individual counseling sessions start at $120, with 30-minute follow-ups costing $65. Packages are available offering slight discounts, and group counseling will cost $30 per person. The Little Clinic’s director of retail dietetics, Allison Kuhn, said their clinics' healthcare providers cannot submit expenses to insurance companies at this time, but she encouraged patients to inquire with their insurance providers.

Koeninger said the prices could be steep for some budgets, but she justifies the expense as an investment in customers’ health that could reduce patients’ healthcare costs through personalized attention.

“If I’m out walking the aisles or planning a tour and somebody asks me a question, by all means, I’m going to answer that question,” Koeninger said. “We’re not going to turn anybody away or hit a point where we say, ‘Sorry, I can’t cross that line. You have to pay me for it.’ But if somebody’s looking for specialized, personalized nutrition help or counseling, that’s when we really encourage them to set up time to sit with us for 60 minutes or 30 minutes to discuss that with us one-on-one.”

Appointments can be made by contacting The Little Clinic scheduler at (877) 563-9057 or online here.

What separates the Registered Dietitian Nutritionists hired by Kroger from a nutritionist?

An RDN is a healthcare provider with a four-year college degree in nutrition or food science, followed by 1,200 hours of supervised clinical practice, a national exam and then continuing education.

A nutritionist has an undergraduate or graduate degree in nutrition. 

Nonprofit Organization Brings Good Nutrition to People 'Where They Are'

So what about those of us who cannot shell out big bucks for solid nutritional advice? Cincinnati’s Center for Closing the Health Gap is one local nonprofit organization trying to bring good nutrition to the people who need it most.

The Health Gap focuses its efforts on lower-income communities -- African-Americans, Hispanics, Latinos and Appalachian communities in the Tri-State -- according to Renee Mahaffey Harris, the Health Gap’s chief operating officer.

“We are in a crisis in our community,” Harris said, referencing rising health disparity costs estimated by the National Urban League Policy Institute. Billions of dollars are lost annually to excess medical costs and lost productivity because of differences in preventable disease rates among different racial groups in the United States.

Read "The Business Case for Racial Equity" for further details on the economic impact of racism and the benefits of advancing racial equity.

The Greater Cincinnati Community Health Status Survey also revealed racial and income disparities in the data, with African-Americans and adults from lower-income families proving more likely to be overweight or obese.

Among the Health Gap’s many grant-supported programs is a seven-week train-the-trainer workshop that equips participants to understand nutrition, healthy cooking techniques and grocery shopping on a budget and then spread these concepts through their communities.

Harris says 102 people have passed through the free workshop, in turn spreading that message of good health to about 2,000 of their neighbors around Greater Cincinnati since 2010.  

“Whether a faith-based community or a school to a corner store in the neighborhood, (we’re) making it easier to access that knowledge from people who look like and live in the neighborhood you’re in,” Harris said.

Harris applauded Kroger’s initiative to increase health knowledge to Cincinnati, but she also challenged Kroger and other corporations to support organizations like the Health Gap.

“Our work is equipping and empowering individuals where they are with the tools to be a part of their own health solutions, and that is a sustainable approach,” Harris said. “It’s not a one-time approach so that when the dollars go away, the knowledge is gone.”

The Health Gap will offer its next free train-the-trainer series in May. Participation is capped at 25 people, with priority given to the Health Gap’s target populations. Contact the Health Gap at (513) 585-9872 for more information on getting involved.

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