FarmBox Rx & Vibra Health Plan advance ‘food as medicine’ with free, prescription food boxes

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty
Source: Getty

Related tags food as medicine Subscription business model produce

If an apple a day can keep the doctor away, the founder of Farmbox Direct and select health insurers are hopeful that an entire box of free, “life-saving produce” can keep older patients managing or at risk of developing diet-related illnesses away from the hospital after prior stays.

Farmbox Direct Founder Ashley Tryner is teaming up with Vibra Health Plan of Pennsylvania – a division of Blue Cross Blue Shield – to launch Farmbox RX. A farm-to-home grocery subscription-based service that will provide free food boxes to qualifying Medicare patients with diet and chronic-related illness on the premise that if they have healthy food to eat at home after a hospital stay they will be less likely to suffer malnutrition and hunger that could land them back in the hospital.

“Some in the health care industry, like Vibra, are starting to catch on to the idea of food as medicine and the idea that if they can change someone’s nutrition, they can lower the claims costs of that individual and improve their health outcomes,”​ Tryner said.

But, she added, access to healthy food – which may be more expensive or not available in all neighborhoods – remains a huge stumbling block. The search for a solution to this challenge inspired the idea for a FarmBox Rx and delivering to beneficiaries’ doors healthy, fresh produce.

Just like FarmBox Direct, the produce for FarmBox Rx is sourced from organic farms that Tryner said she personally selects.

More than food

The boxes also will include educational material about the produce and recipes from former White House chef Sam Kass, who now serves on FarmBox Direct’s board and is senior policy advisor for former First Lady Michelle Obama.

Tryner said the educational component is essential to helping FarmBox Rx recipients better understand how to manage their health with nutrition and what they can and cannot safely eat.

“Vibra really pushed for adding an educational component to the boxes so that their members who are managing diabetes could learn that they can safely eat carrots, but that potatoes are better consumed in moderation, for example,”​ Tryner said.

She also noted the opportunity for FarmBox Rx to address the broader lack of awareness about produce, with which many consumers struggle, but which is particularly acute in food deserts where exposure to diverse produce is more limited.

“Through our work at FarmBox Direct we discovered there is just such a lack of education in food deserts where people literally do not know how to eat healthy. Let me give you an example: When we shipped out gold beets to our customers we were flooded with emails that said, ‘Hey, these beets are not right.’ And it is just that they had never seen gold beets because they didn’t have access to them. So, we quickly learned there was this education barrier and it makes sense for us to help fill that knowledge gap,”​ Tryner said.

A five-year plan for expansion

Farmbox RX’s partnership with Vibra is only the beginning, Tryner said. She explained in 2021, Farmbox RX will expand its reach with two additional insurance providers in other states and plans to deliver 250,000 boxes. By 2022, she said, Farmbox RX projects it will deliver 1 million boxes to Medicare beneficiaries.

“It is a big scale-up from where we are at now, but we’re prepared for it and we are excited about it. We have already partnered with a few national health plans, and we’re in talks with a couple more now,”​ Tryner said.

In addition to expanding distribution, Tryner said she wants to expand the food selection available and tailor boxes for specific diet-related chronic diseases.

“For year one, everybody will get the same box. But for year two, we are switching up the boxes. So, in year two, we will have a box that is for individuals with diabetes, we will have a box for individuals who have renal failure and are going through dialysis and we will have a box that is more tailored to people who have hypertension. So, there will be different types of boxes in 2021,”​ Tryner said.

Farther down the line, Tryner says she hopes to add a brick and mortar component and work more closely with existing retailers to expand distribution and awareness of FarmBox Rx.

“In five years, my vision is that health care providers inside drugstores such as CVS or an urgent care center or Walmart or Kroger can write prescriptions for FarmBox Rx to customers struggling with diet-related disease to help them begin down a path of healthier nutrition,”​ she explained.

She also hopes to expand the services offered by FarmBox Rx to include calorie-counting and exercise tracking since managing diet-related illnesses often requires lifestyle changes beyond nutrition, she said, adding, “My goal in five years is to really have an overall wellness package for individuals that have diet-related illnesses.”

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