High Health Care Costs Lead to Healthier Eating?

As employers desperately try to keep health care costs down, some are turning to unexpected measures, according to Health Care Savings Could Start in the Cafeteria in Sunday’s New York Times. Employers, including some big ones like IBM, have programs that reward their employees for joining a gym or following a preventive health care regimen. Now, some employers are trying to affect their employees diets by offering healthier foods in their cafeterias and giving employees coupons for healthy prepared food items stocked in local grocery stores. Full Yield (a company that does not seem to have a website!) is a new company working to prepare the healthy food offerings that employees are encouraged to buy. Together with Harvard Pilgrim, an insurance company, Full Yield will track employee health to see if it improves with their food options.

Why am I bringing this up at Biofortified?

Sunshine quinoa salad by sonicwalker. Via flickr.

Sunshine quinoa salad by sonicwalker. Click the photo for the recipe. Via flickr.

The prepared food from Full Yield is not your typical prepared food. “The choices may include turkey chili, quinoa salads, salmon cakes, chicken tagine, mixed bean wraps and whole-grain peanut butter cookies,” according to the Times article. Employees in the program are encouraged to eat only Full Yield items or similar whole food meals prepared at home. In these few menu items I see a swath of biodiversity, things never seen in the typical American’s diet. If the people on the program can lean about (and enjoy!) food options that are more healthy and more varied, maybe they will continue to choose these healthy varied items when they are done with the program. Maybe, just maybe, this will lead to an increase in demand for small grains and legumes and a decrease in demand for foods like feedlot beef and white bread. Maybe, just maybe, this could lead to big changes in farming.

Michael Pollan, not surprisingly, is way ahead of me on this idea. His editorial Big Food vs. Big Insurance appeared in the Times in September. Pollan argues that the proposed changes in health insurance regulation, particularly requiring companies to take everyone (no more pre-existing conditions), will cause the health insurance lobby to start fighting for changes in things like the Farm Bill. Pollan suggests: “Insurers will quickly figure out that every case of Type 2 diabetes they can prevent adds $400,000 to their bottom line. Suddenly, every can of soda or Happy Meal or chicken nugget on a school lunch menu will look like a threat to future profits.”

I agree with Pollan that national food policies have an effect on what people eat, particularly when it comes to affecting how much food costs. When we subsidize commodity crops but don’t subsidize fruits and vegetables, we’re effectively reducing the cost to the consumer of processed foods and grain-fed meat. However, I don’t think a potential battle between “Big Food” and “Big Insurance” will lead to as much change as many of us would like to see.

Kid Cuisine photo by Matt, via the very odd but quite funny review of the product on the X-Entertainment blog.

Kid Cuisine photo by Matt, via the very odd but quite funny review of the product on the X-Entertainment blog.

Even if food subsides and policies are balanced to make healthy foods more affordable, people will still make the choices they’ve always made. Even if healthy foods become cheaper than unhealthy food, I’m not convinced that people will choose the cheaper option. People who grew up on box mac n’ cheese and “fun-shaped” chicken nuggets will not suddenly make and eat quinoa salad (maybe quinoa needs a snowboarding penguin?). But, if their workplace encourages them to try new foods, then maybe they’ll want to try them again.

We can’t just leave it up to a few scattered employers, though. We all have a responsibility, if we want farms to grow a larger variety of crops, to eat those crops, and to encourage our friends to eat them. Yum! Quinoa salad, anyone?

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