Whole Foods returns focus to healthy eating

Recently, Mary Olivar got a call from a frantic mother.

The woman had just learned that her daughter had celiac disease, a digestive disorder that is triggered by the consumption of gluten, a protein found in bread, pasta and other foods made from certain grains. The mother had no idea what to feed her daughter.

“It was kind of like talking her off a ledge, a little bit,” Olivar recalled. “I was like, ‘OK, let’s talk about what it actually is; let’s talk about what it isn’t.'”

Olivar has been receiving a lot of such calls, especially about diets, as she’s taken on the new job of healthy eating specialist at Whole Foods Market Inc.’s flagship store downtown.

Olivar is one of the most visible aspects of Whole Foods’ new healthy eating program, “Health Starts Here,” a wide-ranging education initiative that includes outreach efforts to customers, Whole Foods’ own employees and the broader community.

Store employees have marked the most nutritious foods in the aisles with signs that indicate which foods have the highest nutritional value. Employees can sign up for full-immersion healthy eating boot camps. And employees like Olivar are holding in-store cooking demonstrations and classes, as well as participating in community events such as health fairs.

The campaign might almost seem redundant at the natural and organic foods grocer, given that Whole Foods has perhaps done more than any other retailer to bring such foods into the mainstream consciousness.

But the program represents a new outreach and a rededication to what Whole Foods’ officials see as their fundamental mission. To that end, the company has added an item to its list of corporate core values: “Promoting the health of our stakeholders through healthy eating education.”

The end goal, Olivar said, is to empower people. She sees her job as a “demystifier of food,” talking with customers about her own strategies, such as how she gets her kids to eat more vegetables.

“It’s a huge hunger for guidance,” Olivar said.

For Whole Foods, the move is a deliberate shift back toward a focus on healthy eating after years as a darling of the foodie brigade.

In an interview last month , CEO John Mackey talked about how his company is in a unique position to direct national attention toward the need for Americans to change their diets.

“People do pay a lot of attention to us — and more importantly, people copy us,” he said. “So as we do this, our healthy eating education, and as we do our studies and we publicize it … I expect to get a lot of imitators. So I do think it’s possible to do a revolution in health in America.”

Signs of the new program have popped up in Whole Foods’ downtown store. Using a program developed by physician Joel Fuhrman , certain foods are now given scores based on a food’s nutrient density. Kale and collard greens get the highest score of 1,000. The lowest? Cola, with a score of 0.6.

Stores will feature recipes, in-store lectures and support groups. They are also selling educational books and cookbooks. Whole Foods is also promoting two third-party programs: Fuhrman’s nutrient-rich “Eat Right America” plan and “The Engine 2 Diet,” a plant-based diet developed by athlete and former Austin firefighter Rip Esselstyn.

And officials say that many Whole Foods stores will have a specialist like Olivar available to answer customer questions and give guidance.

Company officials are quick to say that the program isn’t a temporary promotion.

“This is a permanent fixture,” said Margaret Wittenberg , Whole Foods’ global vice president of quality standards. Company officials credit Wittenberg with leading the team that developed the company’s approach to balanced eating.

“We want to get back to what we do best, and that’s healthy eating education,” she said.

The program is a great way for Whole Foods to benefit from being the “knowledge leader in that space,” said Al Meyers, senior vice president of Retail Forward, a consulting and market research firm.

“It sort of positions them as a health and wellness headquarters,” he said.

It also helps Whole Foods stand out in an increasingly crowded organic and natural foods marketplace, he said: “To be able to provide more assistance, more education to folks, is perfectly in line with their brand strategy and will serve to differentiate them.”

Whole Foods officials say they’re starting to see more community interest, as well. Parents and teachers regularly ask for tours of Whole Foods stores, said Elizabeth Leader Smith , Whole Foods’ community relations coordinator.

Lately, Smith said, she’s noticed that their requests are evolving.

Now they ask for healthy eating tours. Or a quick demo. Or tastings of various healthy foods.

“We’re just like, ‘Yes! Yes, yes and yes!'” Smith said.



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