Linkwell also has run pilot programs in which grocery stores offer discounts on fresh produce or seafood. It is experimenting with innovative promotions in which customers who buy a box of, say, Special K get $1 off fresh blueberries.
Orthodox food reformers might shake their heads at some of the "healthful" foods that Linkwell promotes. There are coupons for packaged Hormel Natural Choice deli meats and Smart Balance Buttery Spread, the latter of which author Michael Pollan, a leader in the food-reform movement, might classify as a "foodlike substance." Linkwell does have criteria about what foods it promotes. For example, a food cannot have more than 480 milligrams of sodium per serving and must have two grams or less of saturated fat per serving.
"We realize that Lean Cuisine is not a home-cooked, organic meal," Gardner says. "We are a pragmatic solution that is not letting perfection get in the way of progress."
"It's small, gradual changes that work best," says Constance Brown-Riggs, a registered dietitian and a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "You do have some individuals that can turn everything around and empty their cupboard and load up on fresh fruit and vegetables and never eat anything from a can again. But there are many individuals who are unable to make those kinds of drastic lifestyle changes. The research shows that small changes do make a difference."
Health insurers like the program because it is a simple way to nudge consumers toward better health. But it also encourages customers to open and read their health-care plan information. Humana, for example, says it saw its "open rate" jump from 60 percent to 90 percent over the years it has worked with Linkwell. The coupons are sent out quarterly and also can be downloaded online. A service for mobile devices is in development.