Free Gro­ceries: The Di­a­betes Cure

An RD ORIG­I­NAL

Reader's Digest - - Front Page - BY ASH­LEY LEWIS

THAT OLD SAY­ING “An ap­ple a day keeps the doc­tor away” may hold some truth. In fact, one study found that in 2012, al­most half of the deaths in Amer­ica caused by heart dis­ease, stroke, and type 2 di­a­betes were linked to poor diet.

But know­ing you should eat health­fully and ac­tu­ally do­ing it are two dif­fer­ent things, and mak­ing the right choice isn’t any eas­ier when a pound of grapes costs more than twice as much as a pound of pasta. The Fresh Food Phar­macy aims to change that. A pi­lot pro­gram cre­ated by the Geisinger Health Sys­tem, a hos­pi­tal net­work in Penn­syl­va­nia and south­ern New Jer­sey, this phar­macy re­sem­bles a gro­cery store stocked with fresh pro­duce, lean meats, canned beans, and more. Even bet­ter, it’s all free.

Un­der the pro­gram, pa­tients with type 2 di­a­betes and qual­i­fy­ing in­come are pre­scribed a week’s worth of food for their en­tire house­hold, and di­eti­tians show them how to trans­form it into healthy meals. Af­ter the first year, all 180 par­tic­i­pants had im­proved in key health mea­sure­ments, in par­tic­u­lar their

Es­pe­cially ef­fec­tive against di­a­betes, new med­i­cal pro­grams are giv­ing fresh gro­ceries to low-in­come pa­tients—and sav­ing ev­ery­one money

he­mo­glo­bin A1c lev­els (Hba1c), the gold stan­dard for track­ing blood sugar con­trol.

In 2012, the es­ti­mated costs as­so­ci­ated with di­a­betes in the United States were $245 bil­lion. Geisinger will spend only about $1,000 an­nu­ally on each food-phar­macy pa­tient. David Fein­berg, Geisinger’s pres­i­dent and CEO, cal­cu­lates that “a de­crease in Hba1c of one point saves us about $8,000.” With many of the pa­tients drop­ping three points, the pro­gram could save $24,000 (or more) a year in health-care costs—as well as re­duce the risk of am­pu­ta­tion, blind­ness, and other com­pli­ca­tions.

Geisinger isn’t the only or­ga­ni­za­tion ex­per­i­ment­ing with pro­duce pre­scrip­tions. Non­prof­its, food banks, hos­pi­tals, and even doc­tors’ of­fices around the coun­try have im­ple­mented pro­grams that bring the “food is medicine” con­cept to life. Bos­ton Med­i­cal Cen­ter’s Pre­ven­tive Food Pantry was the first such pro­gram in the coun­try when it opened in 2001. To­day it serves ap­prox­i­mately 7,000 pa­tients a month.

In 2010, the non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion Whole­some Wave started the Fruit and Veg­etable Rx pro­gram. Doc­tors give each fam­ily mem­ber $1 per day to spend at a par­tic­i­pat­ing farm­ers’ mar­ket or gro­cery store. The pro­gram has helped more than 11,000 low-in­come pa­tients; in 2014, al­most half de­creased their body mass in­dex, thus low­er­ing their risk for heart dis­ease, some can­cers, and many other health con­di­tions. A new Johns Hop­kins study es­ti­mates that los­ing weight can save up to $16,000 per per­son in di­rect med­i­cal costs, de­pend­ing upon age and the amount lost. How do you like them ap­ples?

All 180 peo­ple im­proved in key mea­sure­ments, in­clud­ing he­mo­glo­bin A1c lev­els.

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