There May Finally Be a Way to Buy Healthy Foods for Less

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

december-AOL-FoodMatthew Cohen for Reader's Digest

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 (minus these foods nutritionists never, ever eat). After the first year, all 180 participants had improved in key health measurements, in particular their 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?

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Ashley Lewis
Ashley Lewis received her Master’s Degree from CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in 2015. She was a Jason Sheftell Fellow at the New York Daily News. and interned at Seventeen and FOX News before joining Reader’s Digest as an assistant editor. When Ashley is not diligently fact-checking the magazine or writing for, she enjoys cooking (butternut squash pizza is her signature dish), binge-watching teen rom-coms on Netflix that she’s way too old for, and hiking (and falling down) mountains.