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Should Employers Start Tracking Their Workers’ Grocery Shopping To Encourage Healthier Choices?

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"Should Employers Start Tracking Their Workers’ Grocery Shopping To Encourage Healthier Choices?"

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In an attempt to lower health care costs, employers are getting creative with new initiatives to encourage their workers to make healthy choices. CVS made headlines last month when the national chain announced a new policy to require its employees to report their weight or pay a fine. Other companies, like Whole Foods, attempt to incentivize their workers to lead healthier lifestyles by offering discounts to employees who weigh less.

Now, a new online tool hopes to provide yet another service for employers who are experimenting with these types of worker wellness initiatives. NutriSavings will allow employers to give their workers coupons based on their grocery purchases — in the same way that a grocery store loyalty card can track purchases and offer rewards. The NutriSavings system can track what types of food that people are buying and score those purchases along a nutritional quality scale, offering discounts for healthier alternatives to those who are scoring low and coupons for the same kind of healthy foods to those who are already achieving high scores:

“Your boss will never know what you’re eating,” says NutriSavings CEO Gerard Bridi, who says NutriSavings is an opt-in program.

But employers do get to see aggregate data on how healthily their workers are shopping. At NutriSavings, for example, Bridi says employees can get up to $30 cash back per month through the program on the purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables. If despite that perk, the collective nutrition score of employee grocery choices still comes in low on a scale of 1 to 100, the company can tweak the benefit to encourage them to put more produce in their carts.

According to Bridi, the economic incentive for companies and insurers to get more involved in their workers’ eating habits is plain. Most health care spending goes to treat chronic diseases, many of which are preventable through better lifestyle and diet choices.

According to Bridi, NutriSystem isn’t just about offering economic rewards; it’s actually designed to re-educate people’s approach to healthy eating. Workers will have to regularly return to the NutriSystem site in order to access their coupons, and that site will present them with other resources to help encourage better nutrition — including articles on healthy eating, and links to healthier alternatives for their recent grocery purchases.

Regardless of big companies’ concern with their bottom lines, that type of preventative strategy could go a long way to curb health costs in the United States. The sharp rise in diabetes rates, largely fueled by the nation’s ongoing obesity epidemic, is currently the bigger driver of U.S. medical costs.

And as long as American workers don’t resent a perceived intrusion into their grocery carts, focusing on changing individuals’ own decisions may be a more politically viable public health initiative than regulating the food industry itself. Some lawmakers — most notably, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) — have attempted to take steps to address obesity rates by regulating the food and beverage industries, but those legislative efforts have so far been met with significant resistance.

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