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RETAIL VIEW: The Food Mill Food Farm-acy preaches healthy message

Continuing its efforts to link diet with health, California-based Kaiser Permanente has made space available in one of its hospital campuses for a retail market that is truly a health food store.

The Food Mill, an Oakland, CA, fixture for the past 70 years, has opened a second store based on the premise that it only sells healthy items.

'We only sell items that are good for you,' said Kirk Watkins, owner and produce buyer. "Our items have no trans fat and are low in carbs, sugars and fats. A diabetic could shop this store and eat anything in it."

The location and concept of the store were the ideas of Tom McDonald, chief of staff for the Oakland Kaiser Permanente Medical Center. "The idea is to encourage the many people who visit our campus, including members and employees, to eat properly."

Dr. McDonald said that diet-related health issues, most notably obesity, are prevalent in society, and it is incumbent upon health officials to do what they can to curb these issues.

Kaiser Permanente has a very proactive approach and has launched numerous initiatives in the past couple of years. The network provider of health care and insurance sponsors farmers markets on many of the campuses of its medical centers, and has also promoted its healthy message on broccoli bands. Its "Thrive? promotion campaign touts a healthy diet as the bedrock of good health.

Dr. McDonald said that the foray into a health-food store is an extension of that effort. This is a for-profit venture for Art and Kirk Watkins, who have owned The Food Mill for the past 14 years. The Watkins brothers both worked in the market since the 1960s and then purchased it when the original owner died in 1991.

Kirk Watkins said that the connection with Kaiser is an experiment to see if a health-food store can work as part of the offerings of the medical center.

On the Oakland campus, the Food Mill Food Farm?acy is situated right next door to the Kaiser Pharmacy with a not-so-subtle play on words that directly links good eating with good health.

Mr. Watkins said that if the store concept works in Oakland, the idea could be exported to the dozens of Kaiser facilities around the country.

Founded in 1945, Kaiser Permanente is an integrated health plan. It is a not-for-profit, group practice, prepayment program with more than 8.3 million members in nine states and the District of Columbia. It encompasses Kaiser Foundation Health Plan Inc., Kaiser Foundation Hospitals and their subsidiaries, and the Permanente Medical Groups. Nationwide, Kaiser Permanente includes approximately 134,000 technical, administrative and clerical employees and 12,000 physicians representing all specialties.

Dr. McDonald said that in negotiating the agreement with the Watkins brothers, he wanted The Food Farm?acy to stay true to its mission and offer only healthy food. As such, the buyers are bound by some strong principles.

? It is a trans-fat free store. "It is clear that there is no reason for trans fat to be in human food," said Dr. McDonald, who said that the fats were developed as preservatives that were considered to be better than other fats, but that has proven not to be the case. Facetiously, he said that trans fat allow "twinkies to have a 24-year shelf life, which is longer than the people eating them."

While Congress and the Food & Drug Administration debate the labeling of trans fat, Dr. McDonald said, "This store leaps ahead of that debate and screens every item for trans fat or hydrogenated fats. No item with trans fats will be sold in this store. Simply put, trans fats have been proven to cause an increased risk of cardiovascular disease."

? All foods are selected because they are the low-fat leader in their category.

? Only whole grains are used in the items sold in the store. No refined grains.

? The fresh fruits and vegetables carried are as low as possible in the glycemic index. No fruit juices with heavy glycemic loads are sold. While Mr. Watkins said that no produce item is prohibited from his buy list, Dr. McDonald said that it is better for people to eat whole fruits, for example, rather than juice from those fruits. In fact, the store has a banner advising consumers to eat their fruits and vegetables in their original packaging.

Another innovative approach in this store is the staffing of the store by a Kaiser medical professional. The Kaiser staff person has a desk equipped with a computer, pamphlets and other information that can help shoppers devise a good diet for themselves.

Dr. McDonald said that one of the main goals of the store is to help patients and staff who are participating in the medical center?s weight-control program. By only carrying food compatible with that program and offering an in-store professional to help, Dr. McDonald is confident that the Kaiser community will shed pounds.

?Is it going to work?," he asked. "That?s the 64-thousand-dollar question."

The Kaiser executive subscribes to the "build it and they will come? philosophy. He said that Kaiser has had a similar approach with tobacco use over the past few decades. It proactively lobbied against the use of that product with its members and staff, and he said that Kaiser employees and members now consistently score well below average in their use of tobacco.

?We will have to wait and see if we can change the rate of obesity for our members and employees. Right now I can tell you that if you are a member of Kaiser Permanente, you have 30 percent less chance of getting heart diseases."

Dr. McDonald said anecdotally that it appears as if the Kaiser community is more in tune with the obesity issue and is making a concerted effort to lose weight.

Mr. Watkins said that since the store opened in early February, traffic has been very good. After observing the buying patterns for the first three weeks, he was tweaking the mix of produce being offered.

He noted that most of the shopping appeared to be for immediate consumption with not too many people doing what he called "destination shopping." He said that was totally different than the company?s other store.

?That store has been there for more than 70 years and virtually everyone comes for destination shopping," he said. "We do not get a lunch crowd. At the Kaiser store, we are selling lots of lunch items, but the people who live in the neighborhood haven?t discovered us yet."

Mr. Watkins revealed that cooking vegetables were not selling very well, so he was going to decrease those items and increase the number of ready-made items such as salads. "Right now I am selling a 50/50 mix of organic and conventional produce, but I am going to shift to 100 percent organic. I believe that?s what this community wants."

Dr. McDonald said that the proof will be in the pudding. "We?ll be able to see if this does make a difference. We will be able to measure if people do change their eating habits. Most people know what they are supposed to eat. This will make it easy for them."

He added: "If they go broke, we?ll know it didn?t work."