Produce manager Nathan Coffin (left) oversees an expanded selection of fruits and vegetables at the new Hy-Vee store in Fairfield, Iowa. He’s part of a green team that includes HealthMarket manager Abbey Bogner, store director Randy Mencke, and dietician Dee Sandquist.
"WOW!" I’M STANDING in the entrance of my hometown Fairfield Hy-Vee store, a new 64,000-square-foot building that opened in April, and I’m amazed. I’ve ventured out in search of the "green aisle"—a departure from my usual trip to our local "all things organic" natural food market.
This space doesn’t feel like the typical Fairfield shopping experience. It feels like I’m in Des Moines, or a big-city Whole Foods store. When I mention this to Randy Mencke, the store director, he just smiles and says, "Good."
You could inflate a hot air balloon in this naturally sunlit open space, and I can’t detect any new construction odors, even though the doors have just opened. How did that happen?
It’s simple. This is Hy-Vee’s first store in Iowa built in accordance with LEED standards. LEED—Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design—is the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction, and operation of high-performance "green" buildings. Hy-Vee is seeking LEED certification for the Fairfield store and plans to build more regionally.
Along with overhead skylights illuminating the aisles, motion sensors activate energy-saving LEDs in refrigerated cases. This is really noticeable if you’re in the store at 6 a.m. when it’s virtually empty. I felt a like a Hollywood celebrity as the entire case of frozen foods illumined my approach.
This last feature is a part of the new uber-efficient heating, air conditioning, and "Green Chill" refrigeration equipment installed here.
Recently KRUU-FM’s Dream Green radio series co-hosts James Moore and Stuart Tanner joined store director Randy Mencke for a walk-through. Dream Green showcases leadership in energy efficiency and sustainability. Randy explains energy savings this way: "These LED-lit frozen cases save 20 percent on lighting, and as natural light comes through the skylights, our ceiling lights dim. The concrete floors don’t require cleaning chemicals to maintain them. The cost of cleaning the floor here is the same as the old store but we’ve added 30,000 square feet."
Later, Mike Smith, director of real estate and sustainability, joins the conversation and emphasizes the use of recycled materials in the steel structure, foundation, and concrete wall panels. Low-E windows have been installed along with a highly reflective roof to reduce energy load in the summer and help boost the store’s energy performance.
Hy-Vee has even made a commitment to a buy-local program. "We do it because it’s what our communities want," Mike Smith explains. "There’s a concentrated effort to bring in more local food and more organic products. The Leopold Center is helping us make it easier for local food producers to supply our stores."
I might have worried earlier that chain stores are grabbing territory that rightfully belongs to the natural and organic food markets, where shoppers have found greener choices for years. But green aisles in conventional stores are a nationwide trend driven by consumer demand.
Yes, conventional chains are following the lead of the organic food industry. But what it means is that shoppers have responded to that healthy eating message. The organic industry "figured it out first" and worked hard to make food choice a reality. But the advantage of green aisles in conventional stores means more people than ever are exposed to greener choices at their Safeway, Kroger, or Hy-Vee store. More choice means everybody wins.
Hy-Vee’s commitment to sustainability is impressive, but reducing the environmental impact of new stores is only one example of how serious they are about healthy lifestyles for their employees and customers.
In 2006, Supermarket News named Hy-Vee Retailer of the Year, with leadership in health and wellness cited as a contributing factor. "Everyone who walks into a Hy-Vee store today is witnessing a retailer changing to meet the country’s new health priorities," wrote Bob Vosburg, online editor at Supermarket News.
I spoke with Fairfield store dietitian Dee Sandquist, who answers questions and guides shoppers in sound nutritional selections. "I’m here to help," Dee explained. "Our customers can find me any time. We talk about their commitment to change their diet and develop a plan." The expanded fresh produce and Health Market aisles make it easy for anyone who has dietary considerations to find the right choices. Personally, I’ve eaten my weight in fresh pineapple since the new store opened because it’s displayed prominently, sliced, diced, looking delicious, and ready to eat.
When Dream Green co-host Stuart Tanner asked Mike Smith about the payback making economic sense for their chain, Mike’s answer surprises me. "Our focus is on healthy living, a healthy planet. We can’t live healthy without a healthy planet. In 2007 we looked at how we can green up our stores. LEEDs is our R & D on getting greener. Economics plays a role, but other reasons are compelling—things that impact local and global environments. We take them seriously, so economics isn’t the whole story. We pursue things even when the returns are negligible."
With Hy-Vee’s green investment of more than $13 million and 125 jobs to the Fairfield economy, plus the town’s two existing organic markets, weekly farmers market, greenhouse growers, MUM’s Sustainable Living Program, and Mayor Ed Malloy’s sustainable plan for the city—Fairfield’s green profile is keeping pace with much larger Iowa cities like Davenport, Des Moines, and Dubuque.
Mo Ellis is a free-lance writer and production assistant on the Dream Green series. Hear more at www.greeniowa.org. The program airs each Thursday at 7 p.m. on KRUU 100.1 FM.