When Carlee Long shops at Phil's Foodway in north Omaha, she buys her groceries in lane No. 5. It's the healthy checkout aisle — the one in the store that stocks its shelves with apples and almonds instead of candy and fried, salty snacks.
Long grabbed a few bananas while she checked out on a Thursday morning.
“If this lane's open, this is the one I choose,” she said, grocery bag in hand.
Phil's Foodway, near 30th Street and Ames Avenue, unveiled the healthy checkout aisle this month. It's the store's latest initiative that encourages shoppers to make better food choices — in this case, by removing last-minute temptations that come in the form of Skittles and Snickers bars.
Phil's is one of eight grocery stores that the Douglas County Health Department selected to join the Healthy Neighborhood Store program and the only one with a healthy checkout aisle. Four of the stores are in north Omaha, three are in South Omaha and one is in Bennington. Two more are in the works, and both will be in north Omaha.
The stores are within areas that are considered “nutritionally fragile,” which means access to healthy foods and fresh produce is more than a mile from most homes. The next grocery store closest to Phil's Foodway is 1.9 miles away at J-N-J Grocery, near 42nd and Bedford Streets. J-N-J is also a Healthy Neighborhood Store.
The neighborhoods surrounding these stores typically suffer from higher rates of obesity and death from heart disease or diabetes as well as below-average household income and fruit and vegetable consumption when compared to the rest of Douglas County.
To combat the problem, the healthy neighborhood stores have installed bike racks outside, host regular recipe demonstrations and place signs throughout the store pointing customers in the direction of healthier choices.
Long, who has been shopping at Phil's since it opened about 40 years ago, said she has taken notice and is pleased with the change.
“It makes people think more about what to get and what not to get,” she said.
In the dairy aisle, for example, Phil's stocks shelves with nonfat or lowfat options and then highlights those products with what it calls “shelf talkers.”
As a result, office manager Thomas M. Davis said, the store has seen sales in low-fat milk and whole grain breads increase. It has had to re-stock the fruit and produce section more often, too, as well as the healthy checkout aisle.
“I'm proud of this store for that,” he said.
Davis, who has high blood pressure, is aware of the health problems in the area and encourages his customers to make smarter food choices. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it doesn't.
Ron Beck, supervisor at Phil's, estimates one in 20 people who come through the healthy checkout aisle grab one of the snacks, but some “still look for the candy and sneak over (to another lane) to get it.”
“They've been doing this for years. so it's not something that happens overnight,” he added. “It takes time.”
Registered dietitian Sarah Schram oversees the Healthy Neighborhood Store program and works closely with Phil's.
“The goal of Healthy Neighborhood Stores is to make the healthy choice the easy choice,” she said.
The program is funded through a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention community transformation grant. The five-year grant — now in its second year — is worth more than $510,000.
The money covers the cost of several health-focused initiatives in the county, including bringing locally grown foods to businesses and converting apartment complexes with six or more units to smoke-free housing.
At Phil's, some of the grant money paid for supplies, like the signs that are permanent fixtures, and the program coordinators' time. Store employees are now trained to demonstrate recipes and provide nutrition education to customers, too, making the changes sustainable.
Combined with the health department's other communitywide efforts, Schram hopes to see obesity rates and incidents of chronic disease decrease in the area.
“The big takeaway is that this is one piece of a larger puzzle,” she said.
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