The city of New York is adopting a new program to promote healthier eating and address the health disparities caused by food insecurity.
The Healthy Savings program is based on the model UnitedHealthcare started in 2015 among its plan members in Wisconsin and has since expanded to Illinois, Virginia and the District of Columbia, as well as to those in employer-sponsored plans in New York and New Jersey.
“One of the things we know is that nutrition and healthy eating are a good part of overall health,” said Michael McGuire, CEO of UnitedHealthcare of New York. “We wanted to make nutritious food more affordable — we thought it was a good connection to help people live healthier lives by eating healthier, and overall that will improve health and ultimately make healthcare more affordable and lower costs.”
It’s a concept New York City’s Office of Food Policy began implementing last month in a similar project that targets food insecure residents in Staten Island, Brooklyn and the Bronx. As many as 6,000 individuals are taking part in the pilot program. Healthcare providers in those boroughs along with local food pantries will enroll individuals who qualify.
Like the UnitedHealthcare program, the New York City model is basically a digital coupon system that selects food items that will be discounted for participants. Savings can be as high as 50% for fresh produce. The average discount is between 25% and 30% for other food items like lean meats, milk, bread, yogurt, beans and cereal. Participants could save up to $10 a week, or $520 a year, on fresh fruits and vegetables through the program.
“Too many people face steep barriers to accessing healthy food,” said Barbara Turk, director of food policy in the office of the deputy mayor for health in a written statement “Healthy Savings is a promising approach to making food security and healthy eating easier for New Yorkers.”
Minneapolis-based electronic payment processing firm Solutran developed the technology used in New York City’s and UnitedHealthcare’s programs. The company also has worked on electronic benefits transfer technology for the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Women, Infant and Children Nutrition Program.
Discounts on food items are pre-loaded each week on a Healthy Savings card that program participants use at checkout to receive the cost savings at participating grocery stores.
Solutran selects which food items will receive discounts, using the Guiding Stars nutritional guidance rating system.
Evidence has shown cost can be a barrier preventing individuals from making healthier food choices. A 2013 meta-study published in the British Medical Journal found it cost on average $1.50 more a day to eat the healthiest diets compared to the least healthy. Over the course of a year, the healthier diet increases food costs by $550 a person.
McGuire said UnitedHealthcare’s Healthy Savings program can reduce monthly grocery bills for eligible users by more than $150. Approximately 300,000 plan members in the New York/New Jersey region are eligible for the program, according to McGuire. He said plan members in other states have saved more than $1.5 million in food costs so far.
While the program may not produce immediate results, McGuire said it will yield long-term benefits for participants.
“Do we know it’s the right thing to do? Yes,” he said. “We know eating healthy leads to better health.”