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Geisinger's touts food-centric diabetes program The Fresh Food Pharmacy

Program provides weekly grocery bags filled with fresh produce, lean proteins and healthier sugars.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

A new food-centric approach to diabetes treatment and prevention is not only resulting in healthier patients, but is mitigating the costs associated with treating those patients, said officials from Geisinger Health System.

The Fresh Food Pharmacy -- with help from the Degenstein Foundation and Weis Markets -- has partnered with the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank in Harrisburg to provide weekly grocery bags filled with fresh produce, lean proteins and healthier sugars.

Additionally, case managers, physicians and pharmacists assist the patients with education and support while monitoring their condition and adjusting their medications when needed. Free diabetes wellness classes, dietary consultation and workshops are also provided to teach healthy eating habits, and incentives are being worked into the program to encourage participation.

[Also: Geisinger to add 2,000 employees as health system continues to grow]

About 1,000 deaths per day from heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes are linked to poor diet. And residents in the Pennsylvania community served by the Fresh Food Pharmacy are poor in more ways than one -- according to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 20 percent of its residents live below the poverty line, and 12 percent of residents over age 20 have diabetes, one of the worst rates in the country.

The Pennsylvania-based healthcare system has been operating its Fresh Food Pharmacy for a few months now, offering food-insecure and diabetic patients prescriptions for free food with the goal of improving their conditions. So far, so good: About 180 patients with Type 2 diabetes are participating in the program, receiving free groceries every week and slowly improving their blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

Geisinger's financial health is improving as well. The costs associated with treating diabetes in the U.S. now exceed $240 billion a year, according to NPR.

[Also: Geisinger CEO calls for an end to ER waiting rooms, advocates for consumer-centric model]

Contrast that to the costs of the Fresh Food Pharmacy approach: Over the course of a year, Geisinger is expected to spend roughly $1,000 per patient, all of whom are low-income.

A decrease in hemoglobin A1C of one point saves about $8,000, and many of the program's participants have seen a decline in their hemoglobin A1C of about 3 points, translating to about $24,000 in potential savings per patient.

The American Diabetes Association recommends diabetics eat vegetables, fruit and lean proteins, as well as whole grain foods instead of those made with refined grains or flour. The ADA also recommends avoiding excess salt, high-calorie snack foods and foods high in saturated fats and trans fats.

But for the low-income individual, food that fits that profile can be difficult to afford. Adding to their difficulty is food insecurity, or not knowing where their next meal is coming from, which can take a physical and psychological toll.

Twitter: @JELagasse