A handful of "food pharmacies" that dispense fresh produce as a treatment for ailments such as high blood pressure are cropping up across the country, according to Mother Jones magazine.
Silver Avenue Family Health Center in San Francisco, for one, combines the resources of a food pantry and a farmer's market with nutritional advice to help reduce the incidence of high blood pressure and diabetes among those who experience "food insecurity" — or the lack of regular access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables.
Diet-related diseases are growing in the U.S., Mother Jones reported. One in three adults has high blood pressure, and more than 7% of the U.S. population has diabetes, mainly Type 2, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports is up from 4.4% in 2000.
Nutritionists have long pointed out the medicinal benefits of different types of produce: cherries to help bolster the immune system, strawberries for improving cardiac health, and papaya to soothe skin conditions, among others. But while it's one thing to be health-conscious, it's quite another to approach food as a way to treat a chronic disease.
This approach — often referred to as the "food as medicine" movement — puts an even greater value on fresh foods and presents significant opportunities and challenges to companies seeking to capitalize.
Retailers, in addition to seeing higher sales in their perimeter departments, now staff dietitians and offer in-store clinics that can push customers toward these better-for-you offerings. Hy-Vee has been a leader in this area, while other grocers are evolving the model. Publix recently partnered with a Florida healthcare system to provide in-store "telehealth" rooms where customers can connect with off-site doctors and other treatment providers.
Some even more intriguing evolutions of this model could be on the horizon. The Future Market, which anticipates how our food system will look by 2065, developed a retail concept product called Produce Pro. The two-way telepresence system connects grocery shoppers with nutritionists, chefs or farmers who could answer their produce questions at the push of a button. The experiential tech, which was piloted at a Brooklyn Whole Foods, aims to put customers in touch with experts that can best guide their selections — whether for taste, health, or other reasons.
Could retailers one day be filling food prescriptions either directly from their produce sections, or through coordination with pharmacists in their drug departments? It's possible. Stores might advertise the program through social media and other channels with accompanying coupon offers for special or seasonal fruits and vegetables and ideas about how to prepare them.
Manufacturers, meanwhile, are making efforts to include more fruit and vegetables in their products in order to appeal to consumers looking to increase their consumption of healthier, better-for-you foods and beverages. Convenience items containing fresh produce are popping up to appeal to millennials who want quality food but don't want to spend a lot of time chopping and slicing. These include the standbys such as salad kits, but also prepackaged kits to quickly whip up smoothies, guacamole and single-serve veggie meals in a bowl.
Even though consumer demand for fresh produce is up — and grocers and food makers are responding — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics indicate that most U.S. adults still aren't getting the recommended daily amount. So, while raising awareness of the health benefits inherent in fruits and vegetables is important, getting people to actually eat them will continue to be an uphill battle for companies and health organizations alike.