Parents Push for Healthy Food at Supermarket
As the wellness manager for Northgate González markets, Teresa Blanco is always looking for opportunities to promote healthy eating. The Southern California-based supermarket chain has been a retail leader in the fight against chronic disease, developing innovative programs that teach nutrition education and healthy cooking.
“Making healthier checkout aisles aligned with our aim to improve community and employee health.”
But parents across LA County noticed different stores’ checkout aisles were stocked with junk food and soda. In stores of all kinds, the products sold in checkout aisles—sugary drinks, cookies, chips, and candy, for instance—tempt customers and their kids as they wait in line. In fact, 46% of impulse purchases occur in checkout aisles. For many people waiting to pay for their groceries, it can be hard not to buy a soda or chocolate bar for themselves or a begging child.
Blanco told the Orange County Register that when parents offer their kids a dollar to spend at Northgate González, they often choose to use it on items available at checkout. Offering healthier options near the register made sense. “Northgate is a family-owned business that primarily serves low-income and Latino communities,” said Blanco. “Making healthier checkout aisles aligned with our aim to improve community and employee health.”
Picking a Policy
LA County parents spearheaded the healthy checkout effort with support from Choose Health LA Kids, a program run by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health with funding from First 5 LA that aimed to reduce early childhood obesity. Five agencies participating in Choose Health LA Kids — The Children’s Clinic, AltaMed, Public Health Foundation WIC Program (PHFE WIC), Lawndale Elementary School District, and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles — formed the Interagency Retail Alliance (IRA) to support local parents’ work to make healthy changes in their communities.
The agencies presented to more than one hundred parents on the data and policies outlined in ChangeLab Solutions’ report, Marketing Matters. After learning about unhealthy marketing practices and their effects on children, the parents decided to pursue a strategy described in the report: creating checkout aisles that offer healthier products.
“The parents identify local changes they want to make to help their children be healthier,” said Anet Piridzhanyan, registered dietitian at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. “They tell us what they want to work on. When they decided to focus on healthy checkout aisles, we helped them.”
The agencies had already built a relationship with the supermarket
Each IRA agency serves a community in LA County that has at least one Northgate González market in its jurisdiction. The agencies had already built a relationship with the supermarket by organizing grocery store tours and food demos, so asking store management to consider making healthier checkout aisles seemed feasible.
ChangeLab Solutions’ Sabrina Adler, who helped develop Marketing Matters, prepared the agencies for the next step. “Sabrina’s support has been invaluable. She provided policy-specific trainings and tailored technical assistance for agency coordinators,” said Ariana Oliva, legal policy analyst for Choose Health LA Kids. “If I don’t have answers to questions, I go to Sabrina. She guides us in the right direction.”
Making the Healthy Choice the Easy Choice
The IRA approached Northgate González management about piloting a healthy checkout lane in one of their stores. Northgate agreed, and set up the first aisle in May 2016 at a store in South Los Angeles.
They stocked the aisle with healthier options—nuts, granola, oatmeal, fresh fruit, dried fruit—and put water, low-fat yogurts, milk cartons, and freshly cut fruit in the cooler. They removed soda, juices, and sugary items. Recognizing the importance of promoting the new aisle, Northgate made it “big and beautiful,” with lots of green signage and tags that point out items’ health benefits.
“In its first month, the healthy aisle was doing 3 times more sales a week than the regular aisles,” said Blanco. “And employees really appreciate it because it’s a great place to pick up a snack at lunch time.”
“One thing we’re hoping to do is have parents and community members involved in the launch of each aisle.”
The initial success was a good sign. Since spring of 2016, the IRA-Northgate partnership has rolled out healthy checkout aisles and pilot lanes in 10 Northgate markets across LA County and Orange County. But community involvement is key: The IRA and Northgate will continue to gather parents’ feedback about what they like and don’t like in the aisles. “It’s important to identify the right items, and make the healthful products people are buying more accessible,” said Piridzhanyan.
“One thing we’re hoping to do is have parents and community members involved in the launch of each aisle,” said Sharen Anthony, senior nutritionist at PHFE WIC. “They can help do outreach to other community members, and that’s very powerful. Parents made this possible, and they can empower people in their communities to make other change happen.”