At the White House's Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health today, Kroger's (KR) health division announced it's partnering with the American Heart Association and the Rockefeller Foundation to launch a "Food is Medicine Research Initiative" to address health inequity and chronic disease.
Part of the long-term strategy includes a more interactive online shopping experience that grades the healthiness of choices, more affordable pricing for nutritious foods, and, eventually, a link between shopping habits and electronic health records.
The initiative is part of Kroger's larger goal of playing a key role in Americans' health and wellness through the grocery shopping experience. Kroger is the nation's largest grocery retailer, and its health care division operates 2,200 pharmacies and 220 clinics in 35 states serving more than 14 million customers annually.
"Forty-five percent of Americans are struggling with chronic diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancers and anxiety, which account for seven in 10 deaths in the country. The human and economic costs of these conditions and diseases are unsustainable. At the same time, we know that all of these ailments can be positively impacted by food," Kroger Health President Colleen Lindholz said in a statement.
Dr. Marc Watkins, Kroger's chief medical officer, told Yahoo Finance that the company is developing ideas that would make healthy eating more accessible for all Americans, including those lower on the socioeconomic scale.
"What we have right now is the perfect storm, and it's around several opportunities. One thing when we talk about food insecurity, understand that food insecurity is that folks just don't have enough to eat," Watkins said.
Over the years, hospitals and health systems have tried a variety of ideas such as food pharmacies and mobile units to ensure access in low-income areas. But many of these programs have been pilots, underfunded, or narrowly focused.
That's where Kroger thinks it can tap into lobbying to expand federally funded food benefits programs, as well as private-sector solutions.
"The main part of where we're stepping in is addressing nutritional security — that folks don't have the right types of food to eat. We need to be focused on having folks have access to healthy, nutritious foods that are able to prevent disease before it starts. Understanding that if we're having a health literacy problem in this country, we're also probably having a nutritional literacy problem in this country," he said.
Even if people generally know what is healthy for them, they may not know how to access it, Watkins said. That's why Kroger's plan depends on the combination of a tech-savvy population and affordable pricing, he said.
"Think about shopping in a digital space, ordering online, getting it delivered to their home, places where they work. I think that's part of health equity ... giving folks access to healthier foods. And then we are going to be very conscious on keeping the price of the items that are in line with what we believe our consumers should be paying for them. So we're asking our partners to come to the table with us in order to put healthier items on the shelves, but don't raise the price," Watkins said.
The second part of the play is where tech plays a heftier role — even as the country is just getting around to ensuring high-speed internet connections for all its residents.
The "opt up" solution, Watkins said, would introduce a digital nutrition scoring system that helps people rate food from 0-100, and is also color-coded red, yellow and green. Ideally, 50% of a customer's basket would be green, 40% yellow and the remainder or less, red.
The system would also recommend healthier options based on what is selected.
"And those are little, incremental behavior adjustments that Americans and shoppers can make and help them opt into healthier items. But taking the guesswork out of it" Watkins said.
The reliance on technology goes one step further. The company envisions a future where the data from the health score of a shopping cart can be integrated into a medical health record.
Today, electronic health records are notoriously clunky and cumbersome — making life more stressful than soothing for health professionals — even though efforts in recent years have focused on interoperability and integration.
If it does eventually work out, Watkins said the idea would be to use the cart as a tool for early intervention, or to help manage chronic patients better.
That would include using dieticians to help manage patient health.
"Why not kind of use them as a bridge to help spread some more knowledge and awareness about nutrition and disease, but also give (patients) practical advice on how to fix a well-balanced meal, how to shop for a well-balanced meal, and how to keep it price-sensitive for each customer?" Waktins said.
"That's what we want to deliver. And those are the small tangible things we can do to raise awareness when it comes to help your eating."
Follow Anjalee on Twitter @AnjKhem