The in-house dietician at Ward 8’s only grocery store has to work within a budget that might make some Washingtonians’ jaws drop. Most of the Giant customers Jillian Griffith supports must feed a family of four on about $140 a week. That’s only $5 per person per day. Through one-on-one consultations, classes, demonstrations, and walking tours of the store, she teaches neighbors how to stretch their dollars and build balanced meals. All for free.
“That’s like a brunch and a half,” Griffith says, referring to the $140 food budget. “It’s crazy. You’re feeding a family of four on that.” She strives to help shoppers at the newly renovated store at 1535 Alabama Ave. SE feel confident and in control of their food choices. “And also how to have fun with their food and really enjoy it and feel autonomy over their health in terms of what they’re feeding themselves and their families.”
Griffith is one of 11 nutritionists or dietitians who work at Giant stores in the region as a part of a program that began about five years ago. She started in the store in March, which was the same month Giant became the first grocery store to participate in the Produce RX program. Qualified patients can obtain and redeem prescriptions from physicians for fresh fruits and vegetables.
At the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Griffith studied public health nutrition as an undergrad and then received a masters degree and registered dietician credentials from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “I thought I wanted to go to medical school, but then I was like, ‘Nope, I want to be on the prevention side.’”
She realized this while completing an internship in the Bronx at a needle distribution center. “Food access was such a big issue,” she says. “If you don’t have a roof over your head, food on your table, and clothes on your back, you’re not focused on being compliant on your medication or making sure that you’re getting clean needles.”
Working at Michelle Obama’s Partnership for a Healthier America, Griffith says, she learned to hold the private sector accountable for childhood obesity. “It opened my eyes up to the role that private companies play in the overall food environment,” she continues. “We’re the ones that are stocking the shelves and putting grocery stores into communities and deciding what kind of food is flowing in and out of the community at a higher level, so when this role at Giant opened up it was perfect.”
When Giant customers come in to see Griffith, she says conversations typically revolve around eating healthy on a budget. For someone who lives alone, for example, Griffith might recommend they utilize more frozen fruits and vegetables to cut down on food waste. “I don’t tell people they can’t have certain things. It’s more so, how can we add a little bit of something better to this plate? Ramen moves quickly off of our shelves here. How can we add some vegetables to that?”
Some of her customers are focused on heart health or diabetes management. “I see people who have worked with a physician or nutrition professional before and have been given very strict direction on what they can and cannot eat,” she explains. “I debunk things they might not understand. They can eat a lot, it’s just about how much and how often. All foods fit.”
Griffith’s office sits inside of the Congress Heights Wellness Space, located at the front of the store. She utilizes the area for classes ranging from cooking demonstrations to fitness sessions for seniors. Attendance varies. Sometimes the classes are full, other times only one person shows up. The store often partners with community organizations such as Martha’s Table, the Capital Area Food Bank, and DC Central Kitchen both on programming at Giant and out in the community.
Soon Griffith will have a larger presence in the aisles of the store. She’s working on signs displaying “nutritionist tips” that will be displayed to give customers inspiration. “I work with a produce manager and she’ll tell me people don’t know what to do with certain vegetables or she’ll say these aren’t moving off the shelf—like cauliflower rice.”
Most weeks, you can find Griffith in her office Mondays through Fridays and some Saturdays. The wellness center is full of recipe cards and other helpful materials for Ward 8 residents looking for a little guidance in the kitchen, including how to properly store produce to make it last.
“We’re the only grocery store in Ward 8 and there’s a lot of opportunity to have positive health impacts east of the river,” Griffith says. “We’re doing work in Ward 8 is to improve knowledge of food and its benefits to health, financial affordability of food, access, and making sure we’re seen as a partner in the community.”