On Wednesday, Northgate Gonzalez Markets opened its 14th Orange County store, on Lincoln Avenue in Anaheim, and debuted a mostly sugar-free checkout lane after testing the concept at a store in South Los Angeles since May. The company plans to spread the program to all 41 of its Southern California stores. The healthy checkout aisle is advertised by a large bilingual sign overhead and smaller displays that say, “Botanas Saludables/Healthier Snacks.”
Shoppers can reach into a basket for a fresh nectarine or apple or pick up single servings of oatmeal, vegetarian jerky and multigrain crackers made by Bimbo, the Mexican bakery company. Beverages include almond milk and coconut water. The aisle does include some indulgences, such as premium organic chocolate. “Our message is healthier your way,” said Teresa Blanco, Northgate’s wellness manager. “You gotta start with making small choices in life.”
Some consumer health advocates have said that with an average 3 1/2- to five-minute wait in a grocery store line, shoppers are particularly susceptible to buying what they see, whether because of pleas from their kids or because of the decision fatigue that sets in after shopping from a list. Retailers ranging from Wal-Mart to Aldi have begun offering healthier choices at checkout. For Northgate, the change is driven by the health needs of its Latino customer base.
In Orange County, diabetes is the fifth-leading cause of death among Latinos and only 56 percent of Latino ninth-graders have a healthy body weight, according to a 2014 report by the county’s Health Care Agency. Miguel Gonzalez, co-CEO of Northgate, said the revamped aisle was the first thing he checked before a Tuesday night reception to celebrate the new store.
“We need to provide an option for our customers that’s not only candy,” he said. “We’re trying to make it really easy for them and not overcharge them.”
Omar Osornio, director of business development at CareMore, a Cerritos-based Medicare Advantage plan, works with Northgate to put on healthy cooking demonstrations. He said lack of access to nutritional food is a barrier to health, particularly for low-income Latino seniors.
“You can provide excellent health care but then what they do at home really hurts them because they don’t have the means,” he said. “The tortillas are bad. The lard is bad. All the fried stuff.” Osornio said he was glad to see the variety of choices in the new aisle. “A lot of the items there I buy for my kids, but I only find them at Trader Joe’s or Sprouts,” Osornio said. “I was disappointed that it was just one cashier, but it’s a start.”
Although customers shopping Wednesday said they ended up in the healthy checkout aisle because it had the shortest wait, they praised the idea. “It’s very good for health to include fruits, vegetables and water,” said Rosa Vargas, 49, of Anaheim.