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Uncover Nutrition

By Scott Orr

The Maverik chain of convenience stores cuts a wide swath through the heart of American rugged individualism, with 203 stores, span­ning the Rockies from Billings, Montana, to the north, as far west as Carson City, Nevada, and south to Flag­staff, Arizona. It’s a region of the American heartland more likely to bring to mind grizzly bears and rattle­snakes than granola and tofu.

But, lately, Curtis Watson has noticed the subtle hint of change blowing across the mountains, where Maver­ik stores are billed as "Adventure’s First Stop." Along with the more traditional convenience store fare of fast food meals, snacks and sodas, customers at Maverik stores are beginning to dabble in healthier options like juices, yogurts, fruit, nuts, even salads.

"Traditionally, customers do not asso­ciate healthier items with convenience stores. However, with the advent of super premium juices, and a few other key con­venient items like yogurt and salads, that perception is beginning to change," said Watson, executive director of foodser­vice for Maverik.

If Watson’s observations are part of a trend, it could not come at a better time for the convenience store industry.

In the Crosshairs
As Americans wrestle with obesity and its effects on health, activists both inside and outside government are sounding the alarm. New laws and regulations aimed at prodding Americans toward healthier eating already have passed at the federal, state and local levels and more could be on the way. And conve­nience stores, where Americans shop for quick eats, snacks and beverages, could find themselves in the crosshairs.

Julie Fields, director of government relations at NACS, said government offi­cials from Capitol Hill to city halls have become focused on America’s waistlines like never before. She fears that conve­nience stores and other businesses that meet consumer demand for everyday food items could face new "nanny state" mandates if they don’t act soon to show they are providing healthier options.

"Over the past year or so, we’ve seen more and more attention in Washington to obesity, which is a serious problem facing America. We’ve also seen state and local governments getting into the act, proposing fat taxes, and salt taxes and soda taxes. At the same time, we are seeing people — including some in gov­ernment — looking to cast blame on re­tailers for the poor health choices made by consumers," Fields said.

"We’re pushing to get ahead of the negative image where we’re so often por­trayed as the bad guy," she said.

To help retailers maintain a healthier profile, NACS has created a Nutrition Campaign Committee aimed at bring­ing together the best strategies for re­tailers to diversify into healthier options — without alienating the core, quick-snack customers who are the conve­nience industry’s bread and butter.

The campaign’s task force is comprised of both industry retailers and suppliers and is focused on providing retailers with tools for highlighting "better for you" op­tions and offering marketing and com­munications help. The good news from the task force’s initial work is that most convenience stores already stock a vari­ety of healthier options; it’s just a matter of making their availability known.

Let’s Move
This latest focus on the nation’s obesity epidemic started about a year ago when First Lady Michelle Obama announced her Let’s Move! campaign, with its goal of solving the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation. Though Let’s Move’s literature does not specifi­cally target convenience stores, it does say it aims to "engage every sector im­pacting the health of children," which presumably would include retailers.

"In the end, as First Lady, this isn’t just a policy issue for me. This is a pas­sion. This is my mission. I am deter­mined to work with folks across this country to change the way a generation of kids thinks about food and nutrition," Obama said.

Just a month after launching the Let’s Move! campaign, the First Lady ap­peared before the Grocery Manufactur­ers Association (GMA) where she rec­ognized strides toward healthier food products, but also called on the industry to do better. "I’m here today to urge all of you to move faster and to go farther," she told the GMA at its Science Forum last March in Washington.

Though her remarks were not aimed directly at the convenience store indus­try, they might as well have been: "We need you not just to tweak around the edges, but to entirely rethink the prod­ucts that you’re offering, the information that you provide about these products, and how you market those products to our children...That starts with revamp­ing or ramping up your efforts to reformulate your products, particularly those aimed at kids, so that they have less fat, salt and sugar, and more of the nutrients that our kids need," Obama said.

Still, the rhetoric coming from Washington has left some retailers wondering why the federal government would focus on the supply side of things, when de­mand is clearly driving the problem. If apples and bananas sold as well as Twinkies and doughnuts, there’s little doubt c-store shelves would be stocked floor to ceiling with fruit.

"The First Lady’s campaign against obesity is important," Fields said. "We agree that Americans need to make bet­ter choices, but it is unfair to single out retailers as being responsible for what Americans eat."

Berries and Granola? Yuck
Maverik’s Watson says the key is to get the right selection of healthy options and to make customers aware of them. Still, he said, all the wheat germ and sprouts in the world won’t do a thing to trim Ameri­can waistlines if no one buys the stuff.

"Like all retailers, c-stores try as best they can to meet their customers’ pur­chasing interests. C-stores will continue to expand or develop their offerings of healthy items insofar as the customer de­mands the availability of these items. On the other hand, history has shown that it just doesn’t work to have a top down command and control governmental ap­proach to legislate or regulate the pur­chasing habits of customers on such ba­sic items as food," Watson said.

John A. Zikias, vice president of mar­keting for Thorntons Inc., which runs more than 160 gasoline and convenience stores throughout the Midwest, said he too has noticed some customers making the move to healthier items. All Thorntons stores stock a variety of healthy items including fresh cut and whole fruit, bottled water and dairy products.

Still, he said, products offered for sale in convenience stores must be based on cus­tomer demand, not on some government-backed commitment to healthy living.

"The offer at a store should be based on the demands of consumers that use or potentially use a particular retailer," Zikias said. Those demands, he added, traditionally have not included berries and granola.

"Customers on the go are seeking al­ternatives and options to eat better; how­ever, if asked I would venture to guess that consumers would state they do not typically head to a convenience store for healthier options," Zikias said.

Multiple Strategies
For retailers, promoting health con­sciousness does not mean their stores have to become farmers’ markets. Like convenience stores, food suppliers also have felt pressure from the public and governments to develop healthier op­tions — and they have responded.

Richard Wolford, the GMA’s chairman, said the food industry has been working to provide retailers with healthier product options by reducing calories, sugar, fat and sodium in more than 10,000 products. He also noted that the nutritional profile of many products have been enhanced with the addition of whole grains, fiber or other nutrients. Many also have been repack­aged, including those now offered in pop­ular 100-calorie packs.

"Food and beverage companies have changed the way they advertise and mar­ket their products — children under 12 now see significantly fewer food, bever­age and restaurant ads on television. And at the same time, they are seeing more ads for soup, juice, fruit and vegetables," Wolford said.

Simultaneously, food industry repre­sentatives have formed the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, a CEO-led organization with the goal of helping to reduce obesity — especially childhood obesity — by 2015. The foun­dation’s membership includes more than 130 retailers, food and beverage manu­facturers, restaurants, sporting goods and insurance companies, trade associations and NGOs, and professional sports organizations.

This spring the foundation’s members pledged to reduce the nation’s total calo­rie intake by 1.5 trillion calories by the end of 2015. The plan calls for developing and introducing lower-calorie options, changing recipes where possible to lower the calorie content of current products and reducing portion sizes of existing single-serve products.

No less an expert than Michelle Obama herself called the foundation’s efforts one of "many good examples, wonderful examples, of folks beginning to move in the right direction. It’s very exciting."

"The First Lady has shown tremen­dous leadership in calling for national ac­tion to end childhood obesity," said David Mackay, chair of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation and CEO of Kellogg Company.

In some cases, strides toward present­ing a more nutrition-conscious profile to the public can be as simple as making sure consumers have the information they need to make sound nutritional choices.

The vending machine industry took this route with its Fit Pick program, which uses stickers on the machines to highlight healthier products. Created by the National Automated Merchandising Association, the program helps alert con­sumerstotheavailabilityofproductsthat are less than 35 percent fat, less than 10 percent saturated fat and less than 35 percent total weight in sugar.

A more ambitious program was creat­ed by British retailer Marks & Spencer, which developed its own line of foods based on diet trials of overweight people. The result was the company’s Simply Fuller Longer foods initiative, which is based on the principal that protein fills you up more than carbohydrates or fat, so it keeps you feeling fuller, longer.

The strategies, it seems, are coming from all corners. The National Confec­tioners Association has its Little Plea­sures program aimed at promoting mod­eration in candy consumption and the American Beverage Association has Clear on Calories, focused on presenting consumers with information about their liquid options.

NACS Can Help
While it may seem the convenience store sector is lagging in the drive to present a health-conscious image, it’s just a matter of finding the ideas that fit each business.

Fields said the goal of the NACS Nutri­tion Campaign Committee is to collect the best of the strategies that are being employed across the retail and supply sectors to position NACS members to be nimble enough to respond before heavy-handed governments begin issuing regu­lations. The group will also focus on highlighting the good that convenience stores already do, while working on elevating or removing the bad.

"In many cases, stores can enhance their pro-nutrition profiles simply by making greater efforts to educate con­sumers about the options that already are in their stores. At NACS, we’re trying to play a role as a liaison between our retail members and our supplier members so the stores can do a better job of building on what suppliers are already doing," Fields stated.

She continued: "We want to encour­age our members to use these resources to their advantage so that when we are unfairly attacked by the food police, we can point to the healthier options we are making available to consumers."

Scott Orr is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.