Posted by Lyndi
Today we continue with topic #2 of our three-part interview with Carolyn Lynch-McKinley.
2. Walmart’s support of the celiac lifestyle by providing affordable gluten-free products.
nwafoodie: Yesterday, we talked about your willingness to freely give of your time to help others by taking the time to show people how to shop gluten-free at their regular Walmart store. The story of WHY you are so driven to help others in this area is moving. And it is because of your efforts to provide advice and support within Walmart’s home office that they developed the gluten-free section that provides an affordable solution for so many of us. Can we talk more about that?
nwafoodie: In May 2008 you were diagnosed with celiac disease and began your journey living a gluten-free life. What was that like?
Carolyn: I finally had the answer to a host of symptoms that had plagued me for years! My doctor gave me a list of foods to avoid and I went shopping. It was a nightmare. For two hours I wandered around the store, picking up product after product, reading labels, and replacing product after product back on the shelf after discovering an ingredient that contained gluten. Two hours, I did this, and I became increasing discouraged. Walmart associates were eager to help but we found that their knowledge of gluten-free matched mine. After two hours of nothing, I went to my car in the parking lot and just bawled.
nwafoodie: That had to be discouraging. What did you do then?
Carolyn: I drove to a local health food store. Thankfully they had a gluten-free section. $60 later and only two grocery bags to show for it, I AGAIN went to my car in the parking lot and bawled. Now I was discouraged to know that I would have to pay a fortune for gluten-free foods. I wasn’t prepared for it.
nwafoodie: It’s true. Gluten-free foods aren’t the cheapest. So how did this translate into you influencing Walmart to developing gluten-free section?
Carolyn: After that first gluten-free shopping trip into Walmart and the health food store, I decided to get my “masters,” so to speak, in learning all the products that currently were available at Walmart that were already gluten-free. It was with great pride that I spent the same $60 and came out with four grocery bags to show for it. Much better than my trip before.
nwafoodie: So then what? How did the dedicated gluten-free section come about?
Carolyn: I was driven to make a difference. Being that I am a Walmart employee in the Office of Diversity Department, I was inspired and driven to make a difference for individual who are faced with the gluten-free lifestyle. In June 2008, just one month after my first shopping experience, I wrote a proposal that detailed what celiac disease is and other food-related illnesses and the importance of providing an affordable alternative for people so they could save money and live better. In addition, the merchants were also interested in providing a great gluten-free experience. The gluten-free section rolled out in Spring 2009. The first stores to have sections were in Springland, Missouri and Vineland, New Jersey, both Division 1 stores (not supercenters). Isn’t that great? I am very appreciative of the Walmart merchants and leadership for taking the time to consider the needs of this community.
nwafoodie: Do all Walmart stores have a dedicated gluten-free section?
Carolyn: There are two different approaches. Some stores have a completely dedicated gluten-free section and some have gluten-free products integrated within categories. At this time, determining if a store will have one is based on the market place and whether a store is going through a remodel, expansion or relocation, or if a store is completely new and being constructed. If a store doesn’t have a dedicated section there are still gluten-free items, they are just integrated into the regular categories. For example, the store on Pleasant Grove in Rogers does not have an integrated section yet it does have gluten-free crackers, noodles, and other items all located within the food aisles. The Neighborhood Market across from the Promenade Mall has a 4ft dedicated section and Bentonville has an entire 12ft section!
nwafoodie: Are you responsible for which products are available?
Carolyn: When the project was initially designed, Walmart developed an internal tasting panel (still in effect). I was captain of educating the Buyer. The Buyer makes the decision on which product to stock based on research, supplier input, etc. It’s a similar process to any product that is available on Walmart shelves. Gluten-free items must go through the merchandising process.
nwafoodie: Can any of us request a gluten-free product if it is currently not available?
Carolyn: Sure! Just like any category at Walmart, requests can be made by talking to your department manager, store manager, going on line, or calling the hot line. This is great because my goal is to have the gluten-free opportunities as part of the normal market place.
nwafoodie: What does that mean, “have the gluten-free opportunities as part of the normal market place?”
Carolyn: It has to do with perception. I think the biggest opportunity that gluten-free has is it being perceived as a fad. It’s not. It is a lifestyle, a permanent lifestyle, for the sake of health. Celiac and gluten-free consumers need to educate others that this is not a fad. So many companies and retailers out there seem to be taking advantage of the marketplace.
nwafoodie: You mentioned earlier about making gluten-free affordable at Walmart. Is that what you are referring to?
Carolyn: Yes. My hope is to get the word out to say, “Hey, look what is available at Walmart now, gluten-free!” The hope is that people with gluten intolerances will be grateful to have something that is both tasty and affordable. This consumer knows they will be paying more for gluten-free. We understand that. Those who are taking advantage of the marketplace and marking-up prices are doing a disservice by putting a strain on these families. A lot of people have to make tough decisions. I believe there is a social responsibility we need to take in creating a positive experience.
nwafoodie: Without you knowing it, you’ve made a powerful impact on MY life. I purchase a lot of my gluten-free items at Walmart.
Carolyn: The first time I went back to Walmart and purchased four grocery bags of gluten-free for $60 impacted my life. I thought, wow, this is powerful. I became more confident and started research. I realized I am able to buy 90% of all my gluten-free staple foods at Walmart. And, there are some items I can purchase at Sams Club, such as Crunchmaster’s multi-grain gluten-free crackers. This allows me to be able to afford specialty gluten-free foods or eating out gluten-free. That confidence pushed me to want to teach others and help them on their gluten-free life journey. Click here to read my previous post to hear how Carolyn helps others in this journey.
nwafoodie: Now you’re talking my language… the foodie language! I am glad to hear you say that you are still able to treat yourself to specialty foods and eat out gluten-free. I think doing that adds to quality of life! You mentioned that you have discovered a whole host of gluten-free restaurant options. Would you mind sharing with us some of those as well as your personal favorite entrees?
Come back tomorrow to find out what restaurants offer gluten-free options as well as Carolyn’s personal favorite menu items!