Retailers have a new ally in the long-running struggle to get healthier food options to consumers in underserved areas.
A pilot program announced this week by health insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield and its licensee Health Care Service Corp., bypasses the debate about grocery store locations and aims to deliver healthy, prepared meals to consumers in Dallas and Chicago for as little as $5 a meal.
Backers of the foodQ program hope to improve health outcomes and reduce “avoidable” emergency room visits and hospital admissions by improving consumer diets.
The program was developed by the BCBS Institute, a subsidiary of Blue Cross. It is being launched through the Affordability Cures program of Health Care Service Corp., one of the largest health insurers in the U.S. Affordability Cures works to “develop long-term solutions that address the root causes of an expensive health care system.”
The team selected 15 ZIP codes in Dallas, including parts of southern Dallas along with Vickery Meadow, Knox-Henderson and East Dallas. The six-month test also includes 25 ZIP codes on Chicago’s south and west sides.
“We know a ZIP code is just as important as a genetic code in determining a person’s health – impacting medical needs and access to care,” Trent Haywood, a physician and president of the BCBS Institute, said in a statement.
“With the alarming rates of obesity and diabetes in our country, we need a different approach to supporting healthy living, and this pilot program can help remove the barriers that keep people from accessing healthy, affordable and nutritious foods,” Haywood said.
Throughout the pilot, consumers will be asked to complete a survey to help verify that in eligible communities there is demand for access to healthy nutrition options if they are offered at an affordable price. FoodQ operators will use the data to determine if the program is sustainable and scalable.
The USDA defines food deserts as areas where residents do not have easy access to fresh, healthy, and affordable foods. Food consumed in food deserts often is high in cholesterol, sugar and fat — food attributes linked to obesity and diabetes as well as hypertension.
A 2016 estimate in the Nonprofit Quarterly estimated there were 2.3 million people in the United States living in food deserts at that time.
Matthew “Trog” Trogdon, vice president of South Dallas’ urban Bonton Farms program, is not surprised to see the health insurance industry launching a program that focuses more on cause than treatment.
“I think the health care community understands the data as well if not better than anybody else,” he said. “A health care provider would know the rates for stroke and cancer and heart disease and diabetes and dialysis, right? I think that makes perfect sense it would be health care that saw the need.”
For more than a decade, much of the discussion about food deserts has focused on providing incentives to grocers, who operate on notoriously thin margins, to set up shop in underserved areas.
The industry, through the Food Marketing Institute, cites factors including high investment and operating costs and “inadequate demographic base” as barriers to more construction in food deserts.
“The typical supermarket takes between five and seven years before its initial investment costs of [up to] $25 million are recovered,” the Institute said in a 2011 report called Access to Healthier Foods.
Local zoning regulations along with high real estate and development costs are often barriers to entry, said Heather Garlich, vice president of media for the Food Marketing Institute.
“There’s no single answer, but working closely with local government leaders and other stakeholders, it is possible to develop local solutions that address the local obstacles,” she said.
By focusing on the food, rather than bricks and mortar, backers of foodQ can launch quickly and at a fraction of the cost of building a 40,000-square-foot facility that needs a fair amount of foot traffic to survive.
Beginning in April, the food and its delivery in Dallas will be provided by by Front Porch Pantry, a meal-preparation service launched in March 2016 by Michaelann Dykes, who also serves as managing partner. Dykes referred calls on her participation in the program to Blue Cross.
The project already is operating in Chicago through Kitchfix, which prepares meals that adhere to Paleo, gluten-free, dairy-free, anti-inflammatory and organic diets. Any consumer living in the program ZIP codes can participate, regardless of health insurance status or insurance carrier.
All meals follow a nutritional framework based on the USDA’s nutritional guidelines and Healthy Eating Index.
Consumers in Chicago and Dallas will be able to pay $10 for individual meals plus a $6 per order delivery fee or subscribe to the foodQ program for $10 per month, which includes free delivery and a buy-one-get-one option for every meal purchased. That means two meals would cost $10 or $5 each.
Chicago has the largest population of individuals living in food deserts in HCSC’s service area. And Dallas has an estimated 40 food deserts, according to Trogdon.
Bettie Montgomery is with the Oak Cliff Veggie Project in southern Dallas, which works to get fresh fruits and vegetables, for free, into the hands of area residents.
She sees food delivery as part of a broader effort, that could also include a retail outlet.
“There should be several different levels that we look at to make affordable food, nutritious food available to the population,” she said, days before a scheduled food giveaway. “People are getting fatter, people are undernourished, and those are the issues that need to be tackled.”
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