The Shop Smart Eat Smart Healthy Food Retail Program is starting in Virginia

By Liza Dobson, Healthy Food Retail Coordinator, Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Family Nutrition Program, Lynchburg

The Family Nutrition Program’s (FNP) ( mission is to teach limited-resource families and youth to make healthier food choices and become better managers of available food resources for optimal health and growth. Our programs focus on basic nutrition, physical activity, safe food handling, and thrifty food shopping.  FNP Program Assistants conduct educational programming in schools, community centers, food banks, farmers markets, community gardens, and numerous other venues, contributing to the reduction of healthcare costs for 148,000 SNAP-eligible Virginians.

While the FNP works to help shape healthy behavior, we also understand why practicing these behaviors is challenging. Many areas across the United States are considered “food deserts” (a term no longer used by the USDA), where some low-income families also have low food-access.  While income and distance from a grocery store are two main factors, we also know that food quality, price, and preparation knowledge are just as important.  All of these factors influence a household’s or community’s “food environment.”

FNP SNAP-Ed Extension Agents work hard to implement policy, systems, and environmental changes to facilitate healthier communities. A new state staff position was hired in Lynchburg in January 2017 to build off this on-going effort and create a comprehensive healthy retail program.  After 10 months of research and development, training has begun, and the program, called Shop Smart Eat Smart, is expected to start rolling out across the state in early 2018.

With many healthy retail initiatives happening across the nation, Stock Healthy Shop Healthy out of University of Missouri Cooperative Extension found success in combining sustainable environmental changes with direct nutrition education to shape the food environment in both rural and urban settings. The director of this successful initiative was contracted to provide technical assistance for FNP’s program design and invited to participate in the first training.

Further, Virginia’s Shop Smart Eat Smart has been grounded in research conducted by a Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise doctoral student. Interviews with rural food retailers revealed what in-store strategies to increase healthy food purchases are feasible from a retailer’s perspective.  From this research, a “menu” of strategies was developed with three categories partners can choose from: In-Store Marketing, Technical Assistance, and Direct Education.  Strategies range from implementing shelf-labels highlighting healthy food options to conducting in-store food demonstrations with nutrition education.  Allowing retailers to choose from a list of feasible strategies allows for flexible programming with uniform evaluation across the state.

The Shop Smart Eat Smart program has been designed in a 2-phase approach: (1) Building demand for healthy foods already available in partner stores, and (2) Supporting supply changes to increase stocking of healthy foods. This means that stores must carry a minimum amount of healthy food prior to participating in the program.  By focusing on increasing sales and demand of existing healthy foods, SNAP-Ed agents can spend time fostering positive relationships with retailers.  This trust, with both the agent and the surrounding community, is a crucial element in making retailers feel comfortable taking the business risk of adding new products to their shelves if they choose to do so in Phase 2.

In October, this two-phase approach was presented to the Corner Store Forum in Chicago during the National Association for Convenience Stores (NACS) Annual Expo. Coordinators from healthy retail programs across the US found this approach very appealing and noted their biggest challenges are often on the supply side of this work.  The first Phase 1 training was carried out in Lynchburg November 13th and 14th, and SNAP-Ed Agents will be organizing community coalitions and finding potential retail partners over the coming months.  Phase 2 training and resources are expected to be complete mid to late-2018.  While SNAP-Ed Agents are the main facilitators of the Shop Smart Eat Smart program, all VCE Agents and staff are invited to participate in this state-wide initiative.

The Family Nutrition Program is offered through Virginia Cooperative Extension, an educational outreach partnership between Virginia Tech and Virginia State University. Funding is provided from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) and Virginia Department of Social Services (DSS) to offer Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) in Virginia as well as from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) for the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP).