Program helps stores offer healthy food options to Nebraskans

A program that worked to make healthy choices easier for Nebraskans over the past four years is now starting to make its mark in Lincoln.

The goal of the Choose Healthy Here program is to raise awareness about healthy eating by increasing the amount of healthy foods on grocery and convenience store shelves in high-priority areas. The program is a partnership between Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and Nebraska Extension. Programs like this are scattered around the United States.

“These programs are being implemented across the country,” said Vanessa Wielenga, assistant educator for Nebraska Extension. “We were able to really draw on the experience and research of similar programs and tweak those for our own state with our own experiences.”

DHHS received a Center for Disease Control (CDC) grant back in 2014, and a small portion of that grant helped start the Choose Healthy Here program. Today, 16 stores across Nebraska have more options for their customers with healthier food on their shelves.

“The intervention of convincing our consumers to choose the healthy thing is hard, but we have to start giving them choices,” said Kayla Abel, nutrition coordinator at DHHS. “It’s important to keep these choices in convenience and grocery stores where we have high traffic.”

The grant money DHHS awarded Nebraska Extension for Choose Healthy Here runs out at the end of this summer. Because Lincoln wasn’t originally a priority area for this grant, there’s only one U-Stop convenience store in town that has the program. However, thanks to the Community Health Endowment, that’s about to change.

The endowment awarded Nebraska Extension a grant of $232,136 to spread the Choose Healthy Here program in Lincoln. Wielenga said the funding started in January and the goal is to get the program in six to eight retailers over the next three years.

A few of the healthy food items that Choose Healthy Here puts on various store shelves.

“We just want our Lincoln retailers to know that if they’re struggling to provide a wide variety of products and it’s their goal to do so, Nebraska Extension is here to help, and we don’t plan on going away anytime soon,” Wielenga said.

The Community Health Endowment also created a community heat map titled “Place Matters” to help Nebraska Extension determine the highest areas of need.

“It’s really great because we can strategically plan where we want to go in Lincoln for these types of projects, making sure we’re not just making a good place even better, but really trying to find high-need areas,” Wielenga said.

Along with providing healthy food for these stores, Choose Healthy Here also conducts nutrition education events, which the retailers like because it helps them increase sales, Wielenga said.

The program is creating positive changes, Abel noted. One of the stores reported increased sales in healthy food every month. Another found that their highest sales are fruits and vegetables.

These are the changes everyone wants to see, Wielenga said.

“We always talk about how we’re an agricultural state, but I think we need to show that better through our habits,” she said. “Nebraska Extension is dedicated to making sure all Nebraskans have access to healthy food.”

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