Jerry Quinn loves talking baseball with Amber Badeau, a full-time registered dietitian at the ShopRite in Olney, where he has bought groceries for years.
Badeau, 26, is a Phillies fan, all right. She also sees opportunity in these encounters, a chance to chat with Quinn, 78, who still works at Citizens Bank Park, about making smart choices in the supermarket aisles.
This may take a while, as evidenced by Quinn's shopping cart this day. It's loaded with ingredients for a special dinner he saw on a cooking show: a layer of ground beef topped with cream of mushroom soup, sour cream, Tater Tots, and shredded cheese.
"My idea of a healthy dinner," he joked.
Therein lies the challenge for Badeau, one of a fast-growing cadre of retail dietitians whose clients are not athletes or hospital patients, but grocery shoppers across the country.
Phil Lempert, food-trend observer and chief executive officer of the newly formed Retail Dietitians Business Alliance, estimates that the number of registered dietitians in supermarkets, now 500 to 600, will more than double by the end of 2014.
"We know what to eat, what not to eat, know we need to exercise and so on, but the message is not getting through. We need someone to hold our hand," said Lempert, a Drexel University grad known as the "supermarket guru."
Shoppers get information and support. Supermarkets - which now face competition from unlikely places like Walmart, Walgreens, and Bed Bath & Beyond - distinguish themselves on something other than price.
"You won't see dietitians at Walmart or Costco, yet those channels are clearly taking business away from core supermarkets," said Jeff Metzger, publisher of Food Trade News, which tracks the grocery industry in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.
Ultimately, "it's a good thing if we can get people to eat less sodium, more whole grains, and foods that are generally better for you. So I do think the purpose is well-meaning," he said. "It's also somewhat self-serving, because at the end of the day, these guys want more shoppers in the store, not fewer."
The program is also an attempt to draw in younger shoppers. "The old you-are-what-you-eat is a lot more firmly entrenched with the millennials and Gen Y-ers. Just look at Whole Foods," Metzger said.
On social media sites and inside stores, supermarket dietitians field questions, give store tours, and distribute information. They organize health fairs and weight-loss challenges, cooking classes for kids and parents, and presentations to school and church groups. They do one-on-one nutrition counseling, as well as programs for groups with special dietary needs due to allergies, diabetes, heart disease, gluten sensitivity, high blood pressure, and other issues.
Although supermarkets have employed corporate-level dietitians for two decades or so, the in-store phenomenon only began six or seven years ago. ShopRite, among the first to embrace the idea, has more than 60 dietitians in its Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Maryland stores.
"Everybody buys food in the grocery store. That's where problems begin," said Badeau, a native of Bath, N.Y., with a bachelor of science in nutrition and dietetics from Mansfield University of Pennsylvania and a master's degree in nutrition from the University of Buffalo. ShopRite hired her in March.
The results can be dramatic.
Mary Ann Moylan, registered dietitian at the Giant Super Food Store in Willow Grove, set up a meal and exercise plan for one shopper who lost 113 pounds in 21 months and has kept it off. (She's off heart and blood-pressure meds, too.)
Moylan charges $20 per counseling session, but the customer gets a $20 Giant gift card each time.
"Giant wants everyone who comes in to see me to become a loyal Giant customer," said Moylan, a registered dietitian for 35 years.
That's the idea at ShopRite, too.
Today, decked out in hairnet and surgical gloves, Badeau is giving out samples of "ants on a log," made of celery, peanut butter, and raisins. "It's a great snack for people on the go this summer, a nutritious alternative to soda and chips," she told customers.
Quinn, the Phillies fan, sampled one and liked it. "It helps to have somebody tell you what to eat. People need a nudge to eat healthy. Me, too," he said.
Some roll their eyes, offer a dismissive "doesn't appeal to me," or blow right by Badeau's Dietitian's Corner, which is next to the checkout, near the candy and ice cream aisles.
Then along comes Pam Wilson-Powell, a rehabilitation nurse who said of Badeau, "This lady is the best thing that ever happened to me."
Wilson-Powell, 54, consults with Badeau on how to encourage her patients to make healthier food choices and lose weight. "It gets discouraging," she said. "I see the same patients being readmitted over and over for the same things - diabetes, hypertension, arthritis - and they're not changing anything about their diets."
A funny thing happened along the way. "I've actually changed my own eating habits," said Wilson-Powell, who has lost more than 15 pounds in three months and confesses that she can't seem to break her potato chip habit.
"It's OK," said Badeau, who has a thing for Turkey Hill Double Dunker ice cream, a swirly, crunchy powerhouse of mocha, chocolate, cookie dough, and cream.
"Everything in moderation," she said.