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Analysis

BCBS Pilot Targets Chicago, Dallas 'Food Deserts' for Affordable Meals

By John Commins  
   February 12, 2019

The initiative hopes that improving access to affordable, nutritious food in underserved areas, particularly for diet-related, chronic conditions, will reduce avoidable ED visits and hospital admissions.

Chicago and Dallas residents living in "food deserts" will have easier access to nutritious, affordable food, thanks to a new initiative between Health Care Service Corp. and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Institute.

FoodQ is a delivery service open to anyone living in ZIP codes associated with the six-month pilot project, regardless of whether or not they have health insurance.

"We know a ZIP code is just as important as a genetic code in determining a person's health – impacting medical needs and access to care," said Trent Haywood, MD, president, BCBS Institute.

"As a physician, I know I can easily write a prescription, but what I don't know is how am I going to make sure patients have access to healthy meals they can afford and want to eat," Haywood said.

The hope is that the easy access to affordable, nutritious food will improve population health, particularly for diet-related, chronic conditions, while reducing avoidable ED visits and hospital admissions.

"With the alarming rates of obesity and diabetes in our country, we need a different approach to supporting healthy living, and this pilot program can help remove the barriers that keep people from accessing healthy, affordable and nutritious foods," Haywood said.

The consumers can access a mobile-optimized foodQ website and review the ready-to-heat lunch and dinner meal options. They enter their ZIP code in the foodQ site, which determines if they are eligible for the service.

When eligibility is verified, participants enter their payment information, select their meal choice, then choose a date and time for meal delivery.

Users select from five meal categories including beef, chicken, fish, pork and vegetarian options. Participants will receive a text message confirming the order, as well as notifications when the order is on its way and has been delivered. 

Participants are encouraged to subscribe to foodQ for $10 per month, which includes free delivery and a buy-one-get-one option for every meal purchased. People who do not subscribe can buy individual meals for $10 with a $6 delivery fee.

Meal deliveries began in Chicago last week and start in Dallas in April. 

HCSC supported the BCBS Institute's development of foodQ through an initiative to address the root causes of an expensive healthcare system, with investments in social determinants of health as one of the initial focus areas.

The BCBS Institute will pilot foodQ in 25 Chicago ZIP codes and 15 Dallas ZIP codes where HCSC operates health plans.

"Food deserts are one of the key social determinants of health impacting millions of Americans," said Manika Turnbull, vice president and community health and economic impact officer, HCSC, the nation's largest customer-owned health insurance company.

"With this program we are meeting people where they live to provide access, affordable pricing and education that can influence healthy behaviors, reduce health disparities and improve their quality of life," she said.  

The pilot will work with Kitchfix in Chicago and Front Porch Pantry in Dallas to prepare and deliver meals.

The BCBS Institute tailored foodQ to the community's needs using its detailed data by ZIP code on the social and environmental factors influencing health.

Throughout the pilot, participants will be surveyed to measure the demand for foodQ service and assess any correlation between the pilot and reductions in avoidable hospital and ED visits.  

A Growing Movement

Improving access to good food, particularly for economically disadvantaged areas, and addressing other social determinants of health is not a new idea, but the movement has been accelerating of late.

Last month, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced that Medicare Advantage plans in 2020 would have the option of providing meals and supplemental benefits to beneficiaries with chronic illnesses.

"How can someone manage diabetes if they are constantly worrying about how they’re going to afford their meals each week?" Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in prepared remarks at the Hatch Foundation for Civility and Solutions last November.

Houston Methodist is running a population health initiative that includes a grant-supported program called Homeplate, which provides food and daily meals for inpatients after discharge.

"Food is one of the primary social determinants affecting health," says Janice Finder, MSN, BSN, director of population health and performance improvement at the health system.

"We have found that many patients who come out of the hospital do not normally require Meals on Wheels or similar programs, but they may need help with meals and a daily check for the first 14–30 days postop," she says.  

For several years Kaiser Permanente has supported a network of farmers markets outside many of its medical centers and clinics.

Loel S. Solomon, PhD, KP's vice president for community health, says providers can no longer improve population health without looking beyond their own walls.

"Good clinical prevention is necessary, but insufficient to help our members eat better, which is critical to addressing obesity and diabetes and all sorts of chronic diseases," Solomon says.  

“We know a ZIP code is just as important as a genetic code in determining a person's health – impacting medical needs and access to care.”

John Commins is a content specialist and online news editor for HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

FoodQ is a delivery service open to anyone living in ZIP codes associated with the six-month pilot project, regardless of whether or not they have health insurance.

Residents can subscribe to foodQ for $10 per month, which includes free delivery and a buy-one-get-one option for every meal purchased.

Providers are increasingly looking at access to quality food and other social determinants of health as a means of addressing population health.


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