What’s the relationship between fresh produce and health? Is fresh produce or medicine prescribed by your doctor better for you? A recent article in Fast Company “Prescribing” fruits and veggies would save $100 billion in medical costs indicates that we might be better off with fewer pill bottles and more fruits and vegetables.

The article cites research from Tufts University that we can reduce chronic diseases by subsidizing the costs of fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods. It states:

Roughly 70% of diseases in the U.S. are chronic and lifestyle-driven, according to the CDC, and nearly half of the population has one or more chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, asthma, heart disease, obesity, or cancer. It’s an expensive issue: 86% of annual healthcare costs in the U.S. are driven by chronic disease.

Two Insurance Scenarios for Fresh Produce and Health

The researchers proposed two scenarios where fresh produce was promoted instead of prescription drugs. In the scenarios Medicare/Medicaid:

  • Covered the cost of 30% of fruits and vegetables: This led to the conclusion that 1.93 million cardiovascular events – such as heart attacks – could be prevented, 350,000 deaths avoided, and healthcare costs reduced by $40 billion.
  • Covered the cost of fruits, vegetables, seafood, whole grains, plant oils, and other healthy foods. This led to preventing 3.28 million cardiovascular events, 620,000 deaths and a savings of over $100 billion to the US healthcare system.

These are significant results – and they get better over time. The study says that both scenarios were cost-effective at five years and highly cost-effective at 10 and 20 years and over a lifetime.

It’s not that we should eliminate prescriptions and modern medicine but rather that we should consider our health more holistically.

Fresh Produce and Health Challenges

Getting people to eat more fresh produce for health benefits isn’t an easy proposition. Our society incentivizes fast food full of artificial components or additives. We tend to favor foods made with simple carbohydrates (like French fries, potato chips or white bread) over fresh produce and whole grains and it’s not easy to change our habits.

I can personally vouch for that. About a year ago my doctor told me I needed to lose weight to reduce any risk of diabetes. As that runs in our family, I was motivated, so I essentially went on a low carb diet, cutting out simple starches (breads, potatoes, pasta, etc.) and instead focusing more on proteins, fruits, vegetables, nuts and cheese. I also cut out most all processed foods. It was painful for a while as my body adjusted and I experienced the “Keto Flu” but the result was that I lost about 15 percent of my weight, three inches off my waist and dramatically improved my glucose readings. So, I’m a believer.

But I’m also fortunate. Where I live, fresh fruits and vegetables are easy to come by. I have at least six grocery stores within two miles of my home and I own a car. And I’m fortunate to be able to afford fresh produce.

Not everyone is so fortunate.

Food Deserts

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to a Newsweek article considers a food desert an area with no ready access to a store with fresh and nutritious food options within one mile. The article states: In rural America, a desert is defined as 10 miles or more from the nearest supermarket. It’s estimated there are more than 23 million people, more than half of them low-income, living in food deserts. Lack of access to healthy foods and consequent poor diet leads to higher levels of obesity and chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease. And with recent cuts to the food stamp program—an average of $90 a month per recipient—achieving a healthy diet will be a lot more difficult for the poor.

How Can We Eat Healthy Foods When They’re Not Accessible or Too Expensive?

The US government is starting to address this as 2018 Farm Bill includes $25 million for a Produce Prescription Program to fund pilot projects that institute healthier foods. But that number is only a small portion of the $87 billion dollar farm bill (or 0.0287%).

Fortunately, there are organizations working to address the fresh produce and health challenge in food deserts. Organizations like the Food Commons that, per their website:  designed a model that will connect local and regional food system enterprises in a cooperative national federation that enhances their profitability and sustainability while creating and supporting a robust system of local community financing, ownership, management and accountability.

Last year I visited Food Commons Fresno, in California’s central valley. I wouldn’t have believed that a city the size of Fresno – the fifth largest city in California with a population of over 500,000 – would have food deserts but, as the city is growing to the north, the grocery stores in the south part of the city are leaving, meaning locals, many of whom are impoverished, have no easy access to fresh produce. I learned how Food Commons Fresno collects fresh produce from around the valley and deliver it at low cost to those in need.  The dedication and thought that go into their efforts are impressive.

Even some retailers are beginning to address this need. Last year, Dollar General, the giant retailer with over 15,000 stores in primarily rural areas, announced that they were going to introduce fresh produce in 450 of their stores. It’s a start!

I’ve also recently been talking with organizations like ReFED, Feeding America, The Sustainability Consortium and others and am both impressed and amazed with the work they are doing to re-purpose food and help reduce waste and its environmental impacts.

Fresh Produce and Health: Technology Can Help

Hopefully the ship is turning and we’re rethinking our diets to favor more fresh and healthy foods and, at the same time, finding new and innovative ways to ensure that all of us have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Much of our fresh produce, however, is grown in along the west coast or in Florida. That means that getting it to rural areas involves lengthy supply chains. We can use technology solutions, such as Zest Fresh, to ensure that the produce is delivered with sufficient freshness for retailers to sell and consumers to enjoy without premature spoilage.

As I speak with growers, non-profits and others in our industry, it’s apparent to me that – as a whole – we’re committed to increasing the supply and accessibility of fresh produce. But it’s also up to each of us in the industry to spread the word, promote better nutrition and support organizations that make fresh food available for all.