For nearly a decade, the local nonprofit About Fresh has navigated its Fresh Truck throughout Greater Boston, bringing a mobile grocery store to communities that struggle to access healthy food. On Monday, the organization launched an ambitious new food prescription program that goes far beyond what a retrofitted school bus can do.
The program is called Fresh Connect, and it’s a new prepaid debit card that health care providers can prescribe to patients who are food insecure. Its goal is to help people access healthy food and help prevent many of the chronic illnesses that drive up the cost of health care.
“We’re giving all of our Fresh Connect card holders the ability to go shopping for the foods that they love at the places that they love,” said About Fresh co-founder and chief executive Josh Trautwein at the program’s kickoff event on Monday. “This card is a resource that empowers folks.”
Fresh Connect works a bit like the Flex Spending Accounts offered by insurance companies. Doctors prescribe the cards to patients who have been screened for diabetes, obesity, or other illnesses that can be tied to an unhealthy diet.
Patients can use the cards to purchase healthy items that are pre-screened in its system (no cookies). The program works in tandem with food assistance programs like SNAP, but is targeted at specific health conditions that have been diagnosed in patients. As patients use the cards, Fresh Connect feeds their spending data back to the health care system, so doctors will be able to track food spending and see how it affects long-term health outcomes.
“It’s really easy for them to enroll a patient, administer a card, and then get data back to measure the long-range impacts” on a patient’s health, Trautwein said.
Several health care organizations, including MassHealth, the US Department of Agriculture, and other philanthropic organizations are providing $4.5 million in funding for Fresh Connect. About 700 patients at Boston Medical Center, Mass General Brigham, and the Community Care Cooperative have been piloting the program at farmers markets in Boston for the last few months. This week, Fresh Connect officially launched its first brick-and-mortar partnership at the nonprofit Daily Table grocery store in Dorchester.
“Fresh Connect deepens and strengthens our commitment to our community,” said Michael Malmberg, the Daily Table’s chief operating officer. “It empowers customers to buy the healthy food they want, and frankly deserve.”
About Fresh plans to roll out Fresh Connect to other retailers, both big and small, in the coming months.
When that happens, Jannie Dorsey of Hyde Park will be ready. Dorsey was the first Fresh Connect shopper to use her card at the Daily Table on Monday. She said she’d been struggling with fatigue and weight gain several months ago when her doctor at the Phyllis Jen Center at Brigham and Women’s signed her up for the Fresh Connect program, telling her to eat more fruits and vegetables to help bring down her blood pressure.
“I didn’t believe it; I thought it was a one-time thing,” Dorsey said after filling up a huge grocery bag full of sea bass, bananas, and red peppers, among other items. She receives disability benefits, and says that she has often worried if she’d be able to have enough food with her SNAP benefits each month. But she’s no longer stressed about having enough to eat since she’s begun using the Fresh Connect card, as its funds get refilled monthly. Even better: She’s lost five pounds.
“It is a perfect solution for anyone that wants to change your diet,” she said.
Fresh Connect arrives at a moment when health care systems are reassessing their approach to care, and looking to invest more in proactive measures to keep patients from getting sick in the first place, said Adam Shyevitch, About Fresh’s chief program officer.
“There’s a lot of research now showing that the vast majority of health care outcomes have to do with where you live, or what you eat, what stresses you have in your life, and other social determinants of health that have nothing to do with your access to health care or the quality of health care you receive,” he said.
All told, health care access only accounts for about 20 percent of health outcomes, Shyevitch continued, citing research from the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps program at the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. And as more hospitals and care providers are being held financially accountable for improving patient outcomes, more are investing in programs that encourage better health, not just treating injury or illness. That’s creating an emerging market for health care investments into the social determinants of health.
“We know food is responsible for about a trillion dollars of direct health care costs,” said Trautwein. Fresh Connect, he hopes, can be a way for the federal government expand its investments in healthy food access. If it takes off in Massachusetts, he hopes more health care networks will follow suit.