Dietetic Career Spotlight Interview: Barbara Ruhs, MS, RD, LDN, Corporate Dietitian for Bashas’ Grocery Stores
By TALI SEDGWICK, RD on DECEMBER 1, 2010
NutritionJobs: You recently spoke on the topic of Supermarket Nutrition at FNCE this year and discussed the opportunities for dietitians as “Supermarket Dietitians”. Can you tell us how you found yourself in the position as a Corporate Dietitian for the Arizona grocery store chain, Bashas’?
My exposure to education in the supermarket setting started when I was an undergraduate at Cornell in the 1990′s. I worked as a research assistant for a work study project leading supermarket tours at Wegman’s (an East Coast grocery store chain). The seed was planted. During graduate school and my internship at Boston University, I did a community health rotation at Boston Public Schools. This experience solidified my interest in public health. My first job was working for the Massachusetts Child Nutrition Programs implementing the Dietary Guidelines in school meals. Changing school meals for better health was challenging due to many things, including financial constraints. Making global changes in government programs takes a lot of time and political will. I found myself asking the question, “There must be a better way to make difference?”. So, I started my own business, Neighborhood Nutrition, to bring the message back to the local level and use retail venues to educate. I pitched the idea to store personnel in my neighborhood at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. I even had the opportunity to present the idea at the corporate offices for large retailers in Boston, including Stop & Shop and Shaws. There was a positive response, however, the missing piece was funding. No one had a corporate budget for nutrition education or health promotion. So I continued to build my private practice and worked as a dietitian for Harvard University. The exposure to different ethnic, educational and financial backgrounds of the clientele inspired me to develop new approaches to solve public health issues. Eventually I received a lead about a supermarket job at Bashas’ in Arizona and jumped at the opportunity for my dream job.
How could Bashas’ offer you this job when the other grocery stores couldn’t?
One of the successful models that makes supermarket health & wellness possible is through developing food industry partnerships to promote healthy products. As a Registered Dietitian (RD), you are faced with ethical decisions on a daily basis. I see my job as an “advocate for customer health.” The choice to promote one product versus another is based on many decisions that ultimately boils down to whether or not a product is a “healthier” option. Nutrition education messages and how the information is presented to the customer also makes a big difference. It’s a fun job, but it’s really hard work to pitch food industry reps and develop win-win partnerships. When I presented this at FNCE I got two types of reactions. People either thought it was genius or were horrified. In my opinion, the food industry wants to do right thing, but they are obviously motivated by profit, which makes my job interesting. When faced with the opportunity to speak to decision-makers at food companies, I willingly share my opinions on ingredients and formulation changes to make products “cleaner” and get food back to the basics. Supermarkets are smart to hire dietitians. RDs offer health advice to customers. In my opinion, this is taking customer service to a whole new level. RDs are also a smart business investment for supermarkets. We know a lot about food and also what motivates people to change. Each supermarket dietitian can impact millions of people each week. This is the way we are going to solve our public health crisis!
It sounds like you see huge potential and opportunity in having dietitians working for supermarket chains.
Bashas’ is a local chain based in Arizona and you will find more RDs in local, independent grocery chains throughout the U.S. It’s exciting to see the growth of this area of dietetics. Wegmans is doing a phenomenal job and has had dietitians since the 1980s. But they are unique. Most supermarket dietitians are a relatively new breed and you can now find dietitians in larger, national chains, including Supervalu (Albertsons, Lucky, Jewel-Osco, Shaw’s, etc.). Meijer in the Midwest has dietitians across five states and Hy-Vee, based in Iowa has a dietitian in every store, a total of more than 100 dietitians! You can now find dietitians working for Target and Wal-Mart. Although you would expect Whole Foods Market to have dietitians, it was only until recently that I learned they have an RD in their corporate office. Large supermarket companies offer great career opportunities for dietitians, especially if RDs aim for executive positions that implement health & wellness as part of a company’s overall business strategy. RDs have unique nutrition & health expertise but we need to encourage and develop business skills in dietetic students to maximize our impact in corporate America.
Briefly, what is your role at Bashas’ and what does a typical day look like?
Ultimately, my job as a RD for Bashas’ is to be their face of health and wellness. Each week you will find my picture, credentials and healthy food recommendations in Bashas’ circular along with a nutrition education sound bite that will reach millions of mailboxes throughout Arizona. I write a bi-monthly nutrition & pharmacy newsletter, and respond to customer requests (e.g., nutrition content, gluten free, etc). I also manage health education and sampling at events (e.g., AHA Heart Walk grocery partner and sample booths) and PR-related programs. Bashas’ hosts in-store nutrition education tours for local Mom’s clubs, weight-loss groups and other interested parties. Ultimately, my job involves a lot of strategic thinking about how to market healthy products in order to have a maximum impact on improving global health and wellness. I remind myself to “act globally, but work locally.”
What skills have you found valuable in this job?
I think being a supermarket dietitian is an advanced practice job. What has made me successful in this position is having several year experience in public health, exposure to the challenges faced by child nutrition programs and gaining a solid understanding of nutrition education. Public health experience is vitally important, since that is really what you are doing in the supermarket. Every dietetic professional needs to have a strong understanding of clinical nutrition in order to effectively work with the public. The ability to break down complex biochemical information into easily understood health advice is an art. In addition, dietitians interested in supermarkets need to have business savvy. Having a private practice for 10 years and interacting with the public gave me a sense of how to dispel myths and help people understand how to be healthy. It would have been easier if I had food industry experience, such as working with General Mills, but in my private practice I learned along the way and got help from other grocery store dietitians when I was starting out. That is why I am happy to do this interview and am passionate about helping other dietitians to make it easier for them. For any dietitian to be successful in her career you have to put the effort in. Bring your own ideas and thoughts and don’t be afraid to try things. Today’s supermarket dietitians are all trail blazers – it is “sink or swim” and not for the weak-hearted. We have big problems to solve and great potential.
What advice would you give to a dietitian looking to work with their local grocery store or National grocery store chain?
The Food and Culinary Professionals Dietetic Practice Group, supermarket subgroup is a great resource. I want to stress experience – supermarket dietitians need at least five years of experience in public health, business and/or public relations. Consider an internship or a job working for a food company such as Frito Lay or General Mills. Volunteer or work in a supermarket part-time. Network with other dietitians that are in the field you are interested in. Be active in your local dietetic association to gain leadership experience. There are lots of dietitians out there but the thing that gets you the job is what sets you apart. Find your passion. If it’s in the kitchen, share your ideas on a blog or work in a restaurant. If you love to write or enjoy media work, pitch ideas and network with other dietitians doing these things. Don’t be afraid to get experience, even in unexpected places.
Barbara is planning and hosting a leadership event for Supermarket dietitians on March 31-April 2nd in conjunction with Oldways Preservation Trust (www.oldwayspt.org), an internationally-respected non-profit, “changing the way people eat through practical and positive programs grounded in science, traditions, and delicious foods and drinks”.