LA CROSSE, Wis. — Nancy Roman had been exploring ways to battle food deserts for five years. In such areas, residents lack access to affordable produce, whole grains and other mainstays of a healthful diet. Then she heard an amazing statistic: 160 million people shop in convenience stores every day, according to NACS. That was when the light bulb went on.
“We never realized that a possible solution was literally sitting right on the corner: convenience stores,” said Roman, president and CEO of Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA), Washington, D.C., a nonprofit that aims to increase access to healthier food options and active lifestyles, in a blog post on PHA’s website. “The sheer reach and access is unparalleled and could be the key to fresher and healthier food options being made available to the 41.2 million people who live in food-insecure households.”
Many convenience-store operators are chasing the healthy eating trend, despite the fact that consumers overall do not consider the channel a source of healthful food. About 10% of consumers who say they’re visiting new health-food destinations go to convenience stores for wholesome items, according to Technomic’s 2018 U.S. Heathy Eating Consumer Trend Report. Also, 53% of consumers said they would visit c-stores more often if they offered healthier foods, according to PHA.
“It used to be that c-stores didn’t care about better-for-you-options, but that’s changed,” Roman said during the 2019 PHA Summit in Chicago. “C-stores have somewhat of an edge: They’ve got brick-and-mortars, more points of location and more points of opportunity to effect big change.”
In 2014, Kwik Trip, La Crosse, Wis., became the first convenience-store operator to partner with PHA. Five years later, the chain has built a foundation of healthy food offerings as well as a health-based store culture.
Here’s the story behind the initiative …
Kwik Trip’s partnership with PHA traces back to late 2013. Executives from the chain met Sue Reynolds, a former member of PHA, who had a proposal: Partner with PHA and make a difference in Kwik Trip’s c-stores and communities. In March 2014, Kwik Trip became the first convenience-store chain to partner with PHA, committing to improve healthier food access to busy parents and families, as well as implement policies that promote healthy habits among consumers. The partnership also launched Kwik Trip’s Healthy Concessions Program, a platform that allows local community groups to purchase healthy products at discounted prices to use for fundraising.
“Being we were the very first to even entertain this collaboration, our goals were to simply bring attention to the fresh fruit and vegetable offerings we had been selling for years,” Jim Bressi, director of food research and development for Kwik Trip, told CSP Daily News. That includes bananas—Kwik Trip stores sell an estimated 1 million per week—as well as apples and pineapples.
Despite its experience in selling fresh food, Kwik Trip saw an immediate benefit from the partnership. In its first year as a PHA partner, Kwik Trip increased bulk produce sales by 5.5%, as well as expanded its offering of whole-grain and low-fat dairy products, according to PHA. The products include meat and cheese snacks, hummus and chips, fruit parfaits and hard-cooked eggs, Bressi said.
Kwik Trip also began promoting healthy, low-cost meals through EatSmart, a health and wellness company and PHA partner. Today, Kwik Trip has an entire EatSmart menu accessible through its website, which offers a plethora of healthy products and meal combinations. These include a Garlic & Herb Chicken Sandwich with an apple; a Garden Salad with fat-free French dressing, plus hard-cooked eggs and a banana; and a Chicken Salad Sandwich on Italian bread with baby-cut carrots. Kwik Trip also provides calorie counts and EatSmart tips for eating a balanced diet, which include avoiding oversized portions, making half the plate fruits and vegetables and consuming water instead of sugary drinks.
“[We wanted] to give our guests more variety, a feeling that better-for-you foods were available in c-stores and that making the healthy choice was easy,” said Bressi.
In 2015, Kwik Trip became the first chain to implement PHA’s Drink Up initiative, a marketing campaign that urges consumers to drink more water. Kwik Trip added the Drink Up logo to the labels of its private-label bottled water and promoted the campaign via social media.
The following year, Kwik Trip added packaged nuts and whole-grain granola bars to its snack offer. And in 2017, the chain raised $75,000 for PHA’s Coin Canister campaign, a platform that aims to increase healthy food supplies and physical activity among consumers. In 2018, Kwik Trip beat this total, raising more than $81,000. Today, the chain has raised more than $336,000 for children and young adults through its PHA campaigns.
“Kwik Trip is proud to help raise money and awareness in the communities we serve in support of PHA’s mission and efforts to promote healthier eating options, fitness initiatives and lifestyles for our youth,” said Dave Ring, community relations manager for Kwik Trip, at the time of the fundraising.
In January 2019, nearly five years into the partnership, Kwik Trip committed to promote PHA’s fruit and vegetables campaign—a collaboration among companies, celebrities and foundations that promote fruits and vegetables—in all its stores in Wisconsin. Since then, Kwik Trip has also updated its customer loyalty program to promote healthier food options, offering customers who use the chain’s mobile app a free item after 15 visits. Kwik Trip will also continue to host an annual donation campaign to support PHA.
Not only have Kwik Trip’s bulk produce sales increased since partnering with PHA but the company has also received positive consumer feedback throughout the process, with many saying they are happy with the new healthy selections, Bressi said.
“It’s a win-win,” said Steve Loehr, vice president of support center operations for Kwik Trip, in a statement in January. “We’re proud to take this next step in the journey toward a healthier future.”