Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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Washington Post Features

September 5, 2012

Specialized coupon distribution promotes healthy eating

Cook from scratch. Eat foods in season. Buy locally. That is the conventional wisdom on what Americans must do to become healthier.

Ben Gardner does not agree.

The founder of Linkwell Health knows that Americans, especially those with chronic diseases, should eat better. Consumers with diabetes buy twice as many candy bars and more than twice as much Mountain Dew as their healthy peers, according to the research firm Nielsen, while patients with heart disease buy 10 times as many frozen dinners. But instead of trying to persuade these customers to purchase fresh produce and prepare a home-cooked meal, Linkwell offers them coupons for more healthful frozen dinners or diet soda.

In short, Linkwell doesn't let the ideal be the enemy of better eating, and the strategy is working.

Gardner's approach reflects his background, which is health care, not food. (He admits that for most of his life he was one of those people who would have happily taken a pill to fulfill their nutritional needs, though, he says, "the older I get, the more I enjoy food.") Health insurers had spent decades building sophisticated, and expensive, disease-management programs. And yet, given the skyrocketing rates of obesity and chronic disease in the United States, it was clear that they couldn't compete with slick marketing campaigns for chips, candy, soda and other unhealthful foods. Why not, Gardner thought, steal a page from the food companies' playbook to encourage more healthful eating?

"Instead of sending someone a 100-page booklet, which nobody reads, about how to manage your health, why not just give them a coupon that they can actually use?" says Gardner.

Americans do love coupons. More than 80 percent say they use coupons regularly, according to NCH Marketing, which tracks usage. In 2011, fueled by tough economic times, we redeemed $4.6 billion worth of coupons, a 12 percent rise over the previous year. Most of those, a quick peek through the Sunday papers will prove, are for unhealthful foods: soda, chips and snack cakes instead of low-fat cheese or whole-wheat pasta.

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