Meet The 29-Year-Old In Charge Of America's Largest Grocery Chain’s Bet That It Can Get Paid To Keep You Healthy With Food Rather Than Pills

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(CINCINNATI – August 13, 2019) - Allison Baker, 29, was the kid in high school who hosted dinner parties for her friends at her parents' house.

"I love cooking for people and learning new things," Baker said.

So she'd try out new recipes on her friends, which taught her a lot about cooking.

When it came time to pick a path after high-school graduation, she decided to pursue a career at a culinary institute that had an emphasis on food innovation via the University of Cincinnati. Then, while studying nutrition at school, she decided to shift her focus to the field of dietetics.

"I was hooked," Baker said. She thought, "this is the perfect intersection between food and science and helping people and making a difference."

From hospitals to Kroger

She started working at hospitals during an internship, working with pediatrics and in the intensive care unit. After graduating, she went on to pursue her master's in nutritional science, also at the University of Cincinnati.

It was then that Baker came across her first dietician who worked in retail, at the Cincinnati-based Kroger. Kroger is the biggest grocery chain in the US and operates more than 2,700 supermarkets and 2,270 pharmacies.

After getting her master's, she decided to join Kroger as a dietician working in corporate and consumer affairs, though it was an adjustment from what she'd learned in school.

"It was really a big learning curve," Baker said. "What we do in retail is very different from how we're trained to be in the hospital." For instance, Baker had to learn about labeling requirements, Food and Drug Administration regulations around food, and brands Kroger sold.

Putting 'food at the center of healthcare'

Baker was in that role for a few years before she started working with Kroger Health President Colleen Lindholz. About three years ago, Lindholz started running Kroger's Little Clinic business, which operates 215 retail health clinics. At that time, she decided to organizationally pull in dieticians and nutrition into the health business under her purview. Lindholz now oversees the clinics and the pharmacy business for Kroger.

"They had started working on a strategy that had food at the center of healthcare," Baker said. Baker came along and was promoted to oversee teams of dieticians across the organization.

Her job at first had been to help coordinate the dieticians working across the organization. There are a lot of ways dieticians work across Kroger's grocery stores, such as providing food samples, teaching healthy recipes, and consulting with patients.

In 2017, Baker became the director of nutrition at Kroger, where she oversees a team of dieticians working with the pharmacy, clinics, and nutrition, including virtual "telenutrition" visits. For her work, Business Insider named Baker to our list of 30 healthcare leaders under 40 transforming the industry.

Baker's been working to find new ways to use the expertise of the dieticians. Kroger's goal is to decrease the number of prescriptions dispensed in favor of promoting healthier lifestyles and food choices to grocery and pharmacy customers.

She and her team have also been charged with developing Kroger's OptUp app, which assigns scores to food, categorizing them in green, yellow, and red buckets with the hope that Kroger can then get a good picture of a person or family's eating habits based on what they buy at the grocery store. The app went live in April 2018.

The hope is that by putting that food score next to the pharmacy data and the person's medical data — assuming customers also opt to share their medical information with their pharmacist — Kroger's pharmacists and dieticians will be equipped to intervene in ways other than simply filling the prescription.

Kroger is also looking to get paid by insurers. Health insurers already pay for dietician services, such as coaching. Baker wants to get them to pay for a "food benefit," in the same way they cover a procedure or a pill. The hope is to have insurers pay for a box of healthy food to be shipped to a member's house.