Health insurers should subsidize good eating

Health insurers should subsidize good eating

strawberries.jpg

Everyone knows that it’s better to eat fresh fruits and vegetables and naturally raised meats and fish than fast food and processed, frozen, and boxed meals. In fact, some advocates claim one way to help lower health care costs for everyone is to encourage people to eat more so-called “real” food, as opposed to the junk food so many eat. Wouldn’t it be in health care insurers’ and providers’ best interests to encourage better eating habits?

A significant data point in the conversation is the high obesity rate in the inner city where farm-fresh produce is rare and/or expensive and convenience trumps nutrition and costs trumps all. But even in the suburbs it takes a serious commitment to eat healthy. Melanie shops “around the edges” of the supermarket (which is where the least processed food is usually found) and in the summer we grow some vegetables and shop at a farmer’s market on the weekends. The tradeoffs are that cooking from scratch is time-consuming and requires a lot of planning and most farmer’s markets are more expensive than supermarkets.

One alternative would be to sign up for a CSA share. CSA stands for Community Support Agriculture and it refers to the practice of a farm selling shares of all its output to a limited number of shareholders. (I’ve even seen seafood CSAs from fishermen’s co-ops.) In this area, the shares cost anywhere from $150 to $600 or more, and you get to a weekly box of product from June through October and sometimes even November. Some farms will let you buy a half-share for half the amount of produce and most require you to put in some quantity of volunteer time at the farm or stand. Some will even let you donate a week to a food pantry or soup kitchen if you can’t make your pickup, say, if you’re on vacation.

When you consider the amount of food you get during peak production, even $600 for 5 months is a pretty competitive deal. Thirty dollars a week for a quantity of fruits and vegetables that would cost 3 times that at the farmer’s market is good. But you still need to come up with that $600 all at once.

So what if some innovative health insurer subsidized part of the cost for you? That’s not far-fetched. A couple years ago my health insurance company paid us $200 just to take an online survey about health and wellness habits. They had decided that just an awareness of the issues and facts of lifestyle choices amounted to more than $200 in health care costs for my family. How much more health improvement and resulting cost savings could be realized if those providers gave a $200 subsidy toward CSA shares? That subsidy even toward a half-share of a CSA could represent a marked improvement in eating habits for a significant number of families.

Of course, one immediate problem is that demand for CSAs currently outstrips supply. Every one of the local CSAs are already sold out and only waiting lists remain. Of course, the fact that there are only a handful of farms offering CSAs in a major metropolitan area is one contributor. Expanding demand for CSAs through subsidies will only exacerbate the situation. Maybe, and now I’m going even further on the limb here, the same insurers could offer subsidies to farmers to go CSA or even encourage new CSA farms to start.

Now, to be clear, I’m not suggesting the government get involved in this at all. I think the free market economic benefit should be enough to convince the insurers, farmers, and consumers of the benefit of the idea. If Uncle Sam, or his state cousins, got involved, we’d end up with a bloated bureaucracy, middlemen getting rich off tax dollars, and nobody any better off after all.

Photo by Domenico Bettinelli. All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2008.

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  • strawberries.jpg: Own photo
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Domenico Bettinelli
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