Life in the health lane
PARKERSBURG, W.Va. -- Walmart customer Jamie Shears maneuvered her shopping cart past checkout lanes lined with candy into an aisle lined with apples, grapes and hula hoops. One daughter grabbed a banana, the other a jump rope.
"This is great," Shears said. "They only see healthy things in this line."
"I think it's wonderful, because my kids aren't reaching for chocolate and sugar," customer Brianna Shahan agreed, as her son pulled an applesauce pack off the shelf. "Apples and grapes are all right with me."
Four Parkersburg-area grocery stores and three Walmart stores have replaced chips and candy in one checkout line with fresh and dried fruit, granola bars and other healthy snacks to give customers a choice.
The Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department gave them the idea.
"We went in as a long shot and asked them to try it," said
Health Department staffer Amy Wentz-Berner. "They jumped right on board."
At first, Parkersburg Foodland manager Dave Worst wasn't sure his customers would go for it.
"I am still kind of amazed that it's actually working," Worst said.
"I've been doing this job for 24 years," he said, "and the first day, I was actually shocked at the amount of products we sold in that aisle. The banana chips. The dried fruit. Individual prunes are a real big seller. The kids call them big raisins.
"People are choosing this aisle over other aisles now. It's growing."
The federal Centers for Disease Control is spreading the West Virginia example to other states, said Rebecca Payne, who directs the CDC's Communities Putting Prevention to Work campaign. An Indiana Walmart already is copying the idea, she said.
"The response has been very, very solid from the West Virginia customers," regional Walmart manager Beth Nagle said. "I have asked customers, 'Why are you in this line?' And typically, it's a mom with a child, and they just kind of grin and say, 'Because I really, really like what options there are -- and aren't -- in this checkout.'"
This is the first time Walmart has opened healthy checkout lanes at multiple stores in one location, Payne said. "It's a fine example of the way communities can help make the healthy choice the easy choice."
The CDC hopes to encourage healthier choices for shoppers as the nation staggers under an obesity epidemic, she said. Obese people are much more likely to develop diabetes, heart disease, asthma, arthritis and other chronic diseases. West Virginia ranks first or second in a wide range of chronic conditions, including obesity.
In Parkersburg, Walmart customers pack the 14 candy-lined aisles, but manager Kevin Ohse said the healthy checkout line is holding its own. "Sales of some items have tripled," he said. "We have to restock it several times a day. It's turning out to be something we definitely want to keep doing.
"I've had customers come up and thank me," he said. "The first day we set up the fruit, I got a phone call from a customer who said, 'Normally, I've got my kids tugging on me in the checkout for a candy bar, but today, on the way home, they're eating a banana. I think that's so cool.'"
It's not just people with kids, he said. "I've had adults point at the fruit and say thank you," he said.
The stores also replaced movie magazines in those lanes with coloring books and toys that cause kids to exercise. "We've sold a ton of jump ropes," Ohse said, "and I'm sold out of punching bags."
Both chains put toys that encourage exercise on dangling clips in the cereal and toy aisles. "We used to have stuff like tattoos," Foodland's Worst said, "but paddle balls sell just as well."
"These stores demonstrate that customers do want these items," the CDC's Payne said, "and [the managers] can prove with sales data that these products do move. So maybe it's something Walmart will eventually get behind on a national scale."
The local Health Department's Change the Future West Virginia program is part of a $4.5 million CDC grant aimed at promoting activities that help residents avoid obesity, which leads to chronic diseases like diabetes.
"Healthy checkouts are part of that," Wentz-Berner said. "We wanted to prove they could work here."
To help the stores get started, the Health Department brought in a dietician to evaluate items. They gave the stores fruit and vegetable display racks to be placed throughout the store.
"We're selling between 40 to 60 pounds of bananas a day in these racks," Foodland's Worst said. "We put a rack of onions and peppers next to the meat, to give people the idea to make a roast, and they buy all the peppers we put out."
Will it spread? Walmart's Nagle said she hopes to open similar lanes in the other three West Virginia stores she oversees, in South Charleston, Ripley and Quincy Mall. "We are doing everything we can to do this right and make a blueprint," she said. "Beyond that, we don't know."
West Virginia's healthy checkout lines are not yet on the Walmart stores' corporate radar screen, cautioned East Coast media representative Bill Wertz.
"It's a local thing," said Wertz, who is based in Massachusetts. "We're glad to cooperate with Change the Future West Virginia, but we haven't gotten to the point where we are thinking about anything more than that.
"But it's early days," he added, "and I wouldn't want to speculate on what might come out of this. Who could say? Who could say?"
This report is written under a fellowship from the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, administered by the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.
Reach Kate Long at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1798.