Obesity Crisis: This Service Lets Your Boss Track Your Grocery Purchases

Need to know what your employees are eating? There’s an app for that.

Edenred, an employee benefits company, and SavingStar, a national leader in eCoupons, announced just such a service Thursday called NutriSavings, which will allow corporations to track the health and wellness of their employees based on aggregate data about their grocery habits.

The new joint venture “will give workers coupons and cash back to encourage the purchase of more nutritious foods,” much as SavingStar currently does, but with the employer twist. CEO Gerard Bridi of NutriSavings maintains that employers will never know what individual employees are buying.

“Your boss will never know what you’re eating,” he says, though employers will be able to see aggregate data about what the health of their staff, based on what they’re picking from the aisle.

Companies that adopt NutriSavings will join a growing list of businesses trying to gain some control over the waistlines of their employees — or at least, make employees more aware of their own. Originally a class-issue relegated to the poorest Americans (and poorest states), the soaring price that obesity is costing the country has begun to attract the attention of insurance providers, employers, and policy makers alike.

According to a release by the Harvard School of Public Health, “the U.S. spent $190 billion on obesity-related health care expenses in 2005 — double previous estimates.” This accounts for roughly 21% of all medical spending that year, according to doctors John Cawley and Chad Meyerhoefer, a figure which is only expected to rise in coming decades. Because obese Americans typically live about as long as their slimmer neighbors, unlike smokers who tend to die earlier, new calculations estimate that obesity now costs the country more than smoking

In an article for Reuters, Sharon Begley writes: "The startling economic costs of obesity, often borne by the non-obese, could become the epidemic’s second-hand smoke. Only when scientists discovered that nonsmokers were developing lung cancer and other diseases from breathing smoke-filled air did policymakers get serious about fighting the habit…Now, as economists put a price tag on sky-high body mass indexes (BMIs), policymakers as well as the private sector are mobilizing to find solutions to the obesity epidemic."

So great is this new-found focus that the Affordable Care Act gave employers permission to “to charge obese employees 30 to 50 percent more in what they contribute towards their health insurance benefit.”

The epidemic is real and the costs are high — potentially knocking obesity into the policy spotlight, with fast and junk food makers replacing Big Tobacco as our nation’s pariah industry. But the parallel is not exact and requires scrutiny; unlike cigarettes — especially at their cultural height — obesity is an issue inextricably related to genetics and class, hitting lower-income Americans the hardest. According to the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, the price of a week’s worth of groceries for a family of four has risen from $116 in 1994 to $201 in 2013. A related study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that “$1 could buy 1,200 calories of potato chips but just 250 calories of vegetables, and 170 calories of fresh fruit.” 

In the workplace, Begley notes, “the obese are less likely to be hired and promoted than their svelte peers are. Women in particular bear the brunt of that, earning about 11 percent less than women of healthy weight.”

The growing urgency to take action against obesity is met with a reactionary warning against further alienating an already stigmatized, marginalized and persecuted group of Americans. To call upon policy may be appropriate — to call upon the workplace certainly isn’t. The road to a healthier America is one that will be long and tough, and can only succeed if the conversation begins with poverty. Not one’s weekly shopping choices.

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T. Chase Meacham

Student at Georgetown University studying theater and government. Writer, director, and Secretary of the Arts for the Georgetown University Student Association.

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