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Technology like Instacart program has potential to increase healthy food access, ASU professor says

Grocery delivery platform Instacart has partnered with an in-home care provider to allow the company’s health-care providers to prescribe food to patients. The deal with DispatchHealth is part of a program known as Instacart Health, which started in 2022; it aims to provide more access to online ordering and healthier foods.

Punam Ohri-Vachaspati, a professor in Arizona State University's College of Health Solutions who also leads the school’s Food Policy and Environment Research Group, spoke more about the program with The Show.

Full interview

MARK BRODIE: Punam, how do you expect this new program to work?

PUNAM OHRI-VACHASPATI: So I think the idea here is to improve access to food and especially in communities that have limited access to food outlets where they can purchase food and to bring in a technological solution if you were to first of all, you know, in the in the most recent announcement to address the transportation challenge, but they're also setting up a system through which providers, health-care providers could for example, write prescriptions about certain types of healthy foods and consumers or patients could then go online and purchase those items through, through their system. So that way it facilitates access so that people can get foods from sources that offer those foods because often people live in communities where they can't access healthy foods. Affordability is the other one, either through their incentives or through insurance companies or providers to get help with paying for healthier foods. And then the, the third item I see is facilitation of it.

BRODIE: So is the thinking then that for example, if a cardiologist is treating a patient who needs to be on a more heart healthy diet, that physician can prescribe particular foods for that patient who can then order it through Instacart and have it delivered to their house.

OHRI-VACHASPATI: So, I think I'd just like to state that I think we have, our health providers are wonderful and you know, really well trained and what the, the services that they provide. But the, one of the unfortunate parts is that the education related to nutrition is somewhat limited in our medical profession. And, but we have a cadre of dietetic professionals who are trained to provide diet and nutrition related advice and prescriptions. But in this scenario, if health-care provider was to work with the dietitian and provide a certain kind of food, you know, list of food items that are healthy for this individual that could be directly fed through the technology and be available on Instacart so that the person knows what kinds of food they should be purchasing.

BRODIE: OK. So you mentioned the issue of access and obviously, you know, there's a lot of talk about food deserts and healthy food deserts in terms of, you know, people who live in areas where it's really hard to get fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy foods, things like that. I'm wondering though, like, what's the overlap between places like that? These food deserts and places where you can't get Instacart delivery. Where even if a, a dietician or a physician prescribes you healthy food, like, can you still get it through Instacart?

OHRI-VACHASPATI: So I think that's the challenge, right? And that's the challenge that these types of public-private partnerships like Instacart and DoorDash and others are trying to address. And one of the key barriers to accessing healthy food is not having a store near you. So transportation becomes a challenge, right? If you have to drive 10, 15 miles to get to the nearest store, which many in our rural communities have to do. It's a challenge.

So what companies like Instacart are proposing is that they can provide access through providing transportation for, for delivering foods to, to areas where there is limited access to, to stores. And such, the other thing that we really have to think about is the delivery cost. So in their current initiative, they are, they are subsidizing that or they're paying for that delivery for up to four months or so. But what happens after four months?

So for example, people who are on SNAP, the food stamp program, currently, online purchasing is available across all 50 states now, which is a huge achievement. However, the biggest challenge is that SNAP does not pay for delivery. And I think if public private-partnerships like the one with Instacart, if we can figure out ways of addressing this delivery fee issues, I think that's an issue that needs to be addressed, the issue of delivery fees.

BRODIE: Well, so how do you overcome that? Like who ultimately in your mind would foot the bill for in some cases, probably the food and delivery, but at the very least the delivery?

OHRI-VACHASPATI: Right. So I think the food the food assistance programs like SNAP and WIC and there is this whole movement to kind of connect health care, health insurance programs like Medicaid and other, you know, for other insurers to step up and kind of pay for healthy foods as a, as a means of preventing chronic disease and as a means of managing chronic disease. But the way the laws are written, SNAP cannot pay for other items than food. So I think that's where we want, we want to have these kinds of public-private partnerships with industry partners, with community partners and with employers who can step in and perhaps have some solutions to getting delivery, you know. Maybe collective delivery to a certain site, you know, or, or delivery to a work site or a child-care site so that delivery costs are minimized can be some solutions.

BRODIE: Yeah. Well, so at the end of the day, how much potential do you see in a program like what Instacart is doing here? Like how big of a dent do you think this could put into the health problems that we have in this country and that we have in various communities. The diet issues we have in particular communities like how, how big of a role could something like this play?

OHRI-VACHASPATI: So I think food or eating is a is affected by so many different things, right? So there is not going to be a easy solution. One bullet fixes it all, kind of one, one program to fix it all. So I think all these programs have a really important role to play in, in making a dent on it.

So for example, right, in, food insecurity is huge as a national issue. The bigger issue is nutrition security, which goes beyond food security where we want to ensure that the food that we have access to is actually healthy. So programs like Instacart and other industry partners can make a dent on making improving access to healthy foods. And I think down the line as more programs evolve, we can use this technology to then guide people towards healthier options and kind of discourage purchase of unhealthy options that currently can be made using food assistance programs.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.