Growing up, Jessica Siegel was a picky eater. Fast forward several decades, now she’s a registered dietitian who considers herself a foodie. “During my college years, I was surrounded by so much love for food, and passion for good food and eating, it got to me eventually,” Siegel said. “I always tell parents there’s hope for their picky eaters.” Siegel has been the only retail dietitian at Gelson’s Markets, southern California’s gourmet grocery store for the last 22 years. That’s 27, soon to be 28, stores. So how does she cover them all? A lot is done over the phone, email and Zoom.
Gelson’s offers personalized service through a complimentary virtual counseling program for rewards members, which was Siegel’s idea and one of the initiatives she’s most proud of. She could start her day talking to someone in Santa Barabra, then someone in San Diego, then the desert, all hundreds of miles apart. “If I would’ve driven to each of those stores, there’s no way I could have spent an hour with each customer and make an impact across all our stores,” Siegel said. Customers that need more support have the option to schedule follow-up sessions.
Siegel initially fell in love with grocery stores as a student. She lived around the corner from a grocery store while she was completing her master’s degree in public health nutrition from the University of California at Berkeley, where she also obtained her undergraduate degree in nutrition and women’s studies. During that time, other graduate students would ask her questions about nutrition, and “somehow it came to my mind that my dream job would be to sit in a grocery store and talk to people all day long about food, nutrition and cooking,” she said. “It kind of came together to me.”
Below is the full interview with Siegel on her role, popular initiatives, biggest challenges, advice for other dietitians and more.
Q. Explain your role at Gelson’s.
A. It’s amazing. Gelson’s has always been committed to helping our customers live their best lives. I have been here for 22 years. I’m the third dietitian that they’ve had. The program is not new, but I’ve definitely developed and expanded it. We’re a high-end retailer that provides excellent quality and customer service, those are two of our pillars. The role of a dietitian fits nicely within those.
Part of what I love is: Every day is different. There’s so much variety in what I do.
On a given day if I’m in my flagship store, I’d be talking face-to-face with customers, doing recipe development, keeping my shelf tag program up-to-date, answering emails and phone calls from customers as well. I also write a newsletter about nutrition every month inspired by trending topics in nutrition and customer questions. I really can go in-depth with topics, so I spend time researching the latest topics and synthesizing the science into information that is understandable and actionable for our customers. I also go out to stores for events and tours that community groups schedule with me.
Q. Can you explain some of the initiatives you’ve done?
A. I have a kiosk in each store that has newsletters and healthy recipes each month, connected to a theme, such as family meals where I write about the importance of having family meals and how to execute them, and I pair the newsletter with family-friendly recipes that I develop. The recipe cards go with the newsletters on the rack. I also have three different shopping lists, such as a low sodium list and a better blood sugar shopping list. I’ve also made a series of cooking videos featuring back-to-school lunch ideas for kids with meals that can easily be packed. The videos are on Gelson’s YouTube channel, website and social media pages.
Q. Which of those would you say is the most popular?
A. The Mediterranean Diet Shopping list is the most popular. It’s important to me to help our customers continue to be healthy, prevent and delay any kind of diseases and illnesses by making better choices at the grocery store. My background in public health has helped me to take a more proactive approach with customers.
Q. Do you do any work with the brands and produce vendors?
A. I do not; Gelson’s has always supported me in being independent in that way. I have built trust with our customers over these last two decades, which is really paramount, too. I recommend what I truly believe in, for the health of our customers.
Q. What advice do you have for other dietitians? What do you wish you would’ve known?
A. I was fortunate to have a mentor. I wish I would’ve known how important having relationships with other dietitians in the field could be. As an introverted person, networking is not my jam. Looking back over these 22 years, I wished I had pushed myself to meet other dietitians in the field.
It’s also really important to say yes to all the opportunities that come your way. It can build a varied skillset. You don’t know what experience is going to apply to your job one day. All through college I had a bunch of different jobs: I was a baker and scooper at Ben and Jerry’s, I did catering for the chancellor, I led cooking activities for kids at local Head Start sites, and I was an intern for one of the first celebrity chefs. All my previous jobs felt completely unrelated, but each one provided me with great experience that I have pulled from over the years.
Q. As an introvert, how do you go about networking then? What are the best ways?
A. I prefer to talk to people one-on-one. Large groups are the hardest for me. Even though I’m an introvert, that doesn’t mean I’m afraid of public speaking, though. My introversion doesn’t get in the way of getting my message out there. My passion is what pushes me forward, especially when my customers send me positive feedback about the ways I’ve inspired and helped them to be healthier.
Q. What’s been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?
A. Being isolated on the West Coast has been one of my biggest career challenges. When I first started, I knew of a few retail RDs and I knew they were out on the East Coast, and here I was, very much on my own. I feel like that was the biggest challenge, was doing it all on my own. I actually started to get to know people through the RDBA (now the Health and Wellness Community). Phil Lempert invited me to come to the meeting in Chicago in 2018 and it was like a whole new world opened up.
Q. What are some other things you look to our organization for?
A. I always enjoy reading the RD Spotlight. I’m curious to know what other dietitians are doing in this space. I find that very interesting, and I always also like hearing about the trends in retail grocery. Research, trends and health concerns are always creating new demands for consumer information and this community helps me stay abreast of what customers want so I can tailor my services to best meet their needs.
Jessica Siegel, MPH, RD, has been the staff dietitian at Gelson’s for more than 20 years. Her job duties include making vegetables taste good and helping customers live their healthiest lives. Siegel is a native to Los Angeles and a life-long Gelson’s shopper. She received her bachelor’s of science in nutrition and dietetics, her master’s in public health with an emphasis in maternal and child nutrition, and her dietetic internship certificate from the University of California at Berkeley. Siegel lives near Century City with her husband and two daughters.