April’s Reign

April Graff’s road to nutrition education began at Minnesota State Mankato

Dietitian April Graff, a 2005 Minnesota State Mankato graduate, in an aisle at her workplace, Hy-Vee.

April Graff always knew she wanted to have a career that involved food, even before she knew the options.

 “I was really inquisitive about how the food worked in our body. You’d hear about how carrots are good for your eyes, [and] I was the one asking, ‘How? What in the carrot makes the eyes better?’”

Graff grew up in the small town of Laurens, Iowa and was particularly interested in science during high school, but she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with that interest. In her junior year, she received a pamphlet from Minnesota State University Mankato that listed dietetics—a field she’d never even heard of—as one of the university’s programs.

“I thought, ‘I can actually have a job where I’m surrounded by food? That sounds fantastic.’” she recalled.

Graff enrolled and studied dietetics at the University in 2001. She said she appreciated the way the University’s dietitian program was structured, with small class sizes and the chance to get to know professors and classmates.

“I made a lot of relationships,” she said. “I really loved that small class size. I got a little of the small-town feel.”

Starting something new

After graduating in 2005, Graff earned a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Stout, which included a dietetic internship. She realized she had little passion for hospital dietetics and began looking for other ways to use her degree. At the time, Hy-Vee in Mankato had a contract with an in-house hospital dietitian, but it was part-time.

“I remember thinking that would be an amazing job,” Graff said. “I love grocery shopping. I love food. I love cooking…”

During spring break, Graff set up a meeting with the store directors of Hy-Vee’s two Mankato locations. The grocery chain wasn’t looking for a new dietitian, but Graff forged ahead with her idea anyway.

“Who walks into a place of employment that’s not hiring and says, ‘Hire me’?”

“I sat them down in the meeting and said, ‘I want to work for you. Here’s some things that I think I could do,’” she said. “At the time, dietitians in grocery stores weren’t really a thing. The two store directors definitely took a risk in hiring me.”

Graff was hired for a part-time position, which was bumped up to full-time when she earned her master’s degree.

“I started working between two stores and tried to figure out what in the world a grocery store dietitian would do,” she said. “Things have kind of grown and exploded, and I’m really thankful that those two store directors were able to take the risk of hiring some gutsy young intern who thought she could change the world. Thinking back on it, who walks into a place of employment that’s not hiring and says, ‘Hire me’?”

Since then, Graff has enhanced Hy-Vee’s dietitian services by listening to what customers want. When she heard they wanted to know how to make simple and healthy meals, she implemented store cooking classes. She also worked to make customers aware of nutrition services by doing everything from setting up signage in the stores themselves to presenting at health fairs, corporate events, schools and other organizations.

“What’s been fun and great about it is I’ve gotten to really dig in and create what that position can be, and what types of services customers would really benefit from the most. It hasn’t been corporate-down telling us what we need to do; it’s been really grassroots, listening to what needs the customers have and how we can be a benefit.”

 “April is the face of our store when it comes to health and wellness,” said Dan Vondrak, Graff’s supervisor at Hy-Vee for the past five years,  “She has endless energy, and she’s constantly looking at ways to engage her customers and her patients. She’s just been awesome. She’s so innovative and ready to try something new. She will come to me with customer requests, and she’s already on top of them and working on them.”

Vondrak said one of the most notable ways he saw Graff increase dietitian services was by training more employees to be able to participate in the Hy-Vee Simple Fix Program, a group event in which customers can choose a meal package of seven recipes, then shop for and prepare the meals with Hy-Vee staff at the store.

“Sometimes people are great, but they’re only great at working for themselves,” he said. “April empowered a full team of employees, so we could expand the program to reach more people. She really embraced training and empowering other people around her to further the Hy-Vee programs and further our reach. She’s inspired a lot of young ladies to be dietitians… She works with them. We have a young person who’s been working with her, and she helped her prep for an internship, and the young lady got it. She inspires me as well. She’s that person that who has helped me live a healthier lifestyle.”

A typical day

One main focus for Graff is offering more education about healthy eating, in ways such as the free shopping tours she gives customers on a daily basis. These tours take customers through the store to help them find food appropriate for their needs. Customers ask for her help planning meals around a number of challenges such as food allergies, a picky eater, weight loss goals, diabetes, high cholesterol and others. More than simply helping customers find items,  Graff helps them understand how to read labels and plan meals.

One of the biggest requests she receives is for help planning healthy meals on a tight budget—something that is surprisingly doable.

“Eating healthy is not expensive; eating convenient is expensive,” she said. “The best thing that we can do is take out those foods that aren’t giving us nutrition. It really is just a matter of meeting people where they’re at. It’s not always perfect, but it 100-percent can be done with time and education.”

Graff also offers nutrition counseling sessions by appointment, in which she will spend even more time helping people come up with meal plans. Her work brings her to churches, work sites and schools for nutrition presentations.

“The Mankato area population is an amazing population to work with,” she said. “They’re very interested in health and wellness, very open to having conversations. Having a dietitian here, I think it has been a really big benefit.”

One of Graff’s most influential University professors was Joye Bond, who taught in the Family Consumer Science department. Graff continues to work with Bond, offering her services as a preceptor for nutrition students who need internship hours for their program. These students are able to spend time during a semester working at Hy-Vee by teaching nutrition classes, helping lead store tours, participating in events throughout the community and more.

“We’re able to bring nutrition students in and really help them get an idea of dietetics, specifically retail dietetics,” Graff said. “They can get a good picture of some of the different projects and ways that we’re able to educate consumers on food, wellness and nutrition.”

The internship partnership between the University and Hy-Vee has been going on since Graff came to the grocery store chain, she said, but the Mankato Hy-Vee also started something new last year when it created two new nutrition assistant positions. These positions are open to nutrition students majoring in dietetics, and the students who receive them work with Graff in ways that don’t require dietetic licenses.

“Eating healthy is not expensive. Eating convenient is expensive.”

“It’s really difficult to get on-the-job training in dietetics without being a dietitian,” Graff said. “This allows students to still delve into the food nutrition world. We really focus on giving those students an opportunity to immerse themselves in this world and expand their knowledge and skill set. It gives them on-the-job training before they finish their education and move on. It’s great for the students, it’s great for the University, and it’s great for our store and our customers as a whole, because we’re able to expand the nutrition services that we offer. It’s been really rewarding so far.”