Healthy Food and Hospitals Go Together Like Peas and Carrots

August 6, 2014
Karen Perry Stillerman
Sr. Strategist and Sr. Analyst, Food & Environment Program

Recently I visited Helsinki, Finland, where in midsummer locals and tourists alike buy fresh peas at the outdoor market, shelling and eating them out of the pod while walking down the Esplanade. I’ve never seen so many people—young people, old people, even babies in strollers—snacking on raw vegetables on the street. But back here in the U.S., a steady proliferation of farmers markets offers increasing opportunities to buy just-picked veggies outdoors and eat them wherever you want. This is good news for Americans’ health and our out-of-control health care spending. And now the news is getting even better.

peas in Helsinki

Fresh peas for sale at a market in Helsinki, Finland.

This week is National Farmers Market Week, as designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In marking the week, the USDA updated the number of markets in its national database—there are now 8,268 such markets in communities across the country, a 76 percent increase since 2008.

As the total number of markets has grown, so too has the number of markets that allow low-income consumers to pay with nutrition assistance vouchers from the federal SNAP program (formerly food stamps) and those that offer extra value when vouchers are used to purchase fruits and vegetables.

As I wrote back in February, several USDA programs created or reauthorized by Congress in the 2014 Farm Bill will help to expand farmers markets and provide greater access to them. In particular, the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives Program, or FINI, will help low-income recipients of federal food assistance programs buy healthy foods at farmers markets by increasing the value of their benefits for purchases of fresh produce there. The program will provide $20 million annually in matching grants to markets that redeem the extra benefits. But to receive a FINI grant, local projects must have matching funds from another source.

Farm Bill Meets Health Care

And that’s where hospitals come in. According to IRS rules and the Affordable Care Act, non-profit hospitals are required to spend a portion of their revenues on initiatives that benefit the health of the communities they serve. For hospitals, health centers, and health insurers that want to improve health and reduce diet-related disease in their communities and patient populations, the confluence of this “community benefits” requirement and the USDA FINI program offers a unique opportunity.

This week, UCS and our friends at the Center for a Livable Future (CLF, part of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore), released a new policy brief detailing how hospital administrators can partner with community organizations to promote greater consumption of healthy food by the populations they serve.

My colleague Jeffrey O’Hara partnered with co-author Anne Palmer of CLF on “Hospitals and Healthy Food,” which found that nonprofit hospitals constitute 51 percent of all hospitals in the United States, and in 2002 these institutions received $12.6 billion in tax exemptions. A recent study of select tax-exempt hospitals found that they devoted an average of 8 percent of expenses to community benefits. Actual community benefit expenditures by all nonprofit hospitals nationwide are not reported, but Jeff and Anne calculated that they total about $33 billion. Until now, the vast majority of these total expenses—an estimated 85 percent—have subsidized patient care, but in the future they can and should be aimed more at prevention, including improving community nutrition.

The USDA is expected to release a request for applications to the FINI program this fall, and to announce grant recipients next spring. We’ll be working to encourage hospitals to get into the act.