Independent Health wants you to eat more fruit and vegetables and is making it worth your while.

The insurance carrier is teaming up with Tops Friendly Markets on a rewards benefit that offers its members money back every time they buy fresh produce at the supermarket chain.

For every $2 that eligible Independent Health members spend, they’ll earn $1 to spend later at Tops grocery stores, an incentive intended to spur people to eat more carrots and broccoli and fewer pork rinds and doughnuts.

“It’s a great way to help people make more healthy choices in their life,” Frank Curci, Tops’ president and CEO, said in an interview following the unveiling of the program Wednesday at a Tops in North Buffalo.

Independent Health’s nutrition benefit is a new twist on a growing trend by health plans and employers to encourage people to eat nutritious food, work out and otherwise live healthier lives, as a way of bringing down the cost of health care.

Insurers across the country are offering a variety of incentive programs to reward clean living, though this supermarket-based benefit is the first of its kind announced in the state, according to Independent Health.

“We all know the importance of eating more fresh fruits and vegetables and the impact that has on improving health,” Dr. Michael Cropp, the insurer’s president and CEO, said in an interview.

Independent Health and Tops officials have worked for about six months on the mechanics of the nutrition benefit.

The insurer wants to expand the program to other grocery stores but started working with Tops because the locally based supermarket chain has the necessary technology in place.

Tops already tracks purchases through customers’ Bonus Plus Cards for its GasPoints program, which saves shoppers money on their gas purchases once they reach certain spending thresholds.

Tops shoppers see on their receipts a running tally of how much they’ve saved over the year by using their loyalty cards, and the spending on fresh fruit and vegetables will be accounted for in a similar way, Curci said.

Nutritionists agree it’s best to eat produce that has not been processed.

Flash-frozen produce still retains some of its vitamins and minerals, but the canning process can add sodium and preservatives, said Carol DeNysschen, associate professor in dietetics and nutrition at SUNY Buffalo State. “Fresh fruits and vegetables are still the way to go,” she said.

The biggest complaint some people make is that it’s expensive to eat healthy, DeNysschen and Curci said, so this program attempts to bring down the cost of purchasing spinach, squash and other produce.

The nutritional benefit will be embedded in the insurance plans offered to employees of small businesses, or to people who buy individual coverage on or off the new public health insurance exchange, and it will take effect for these Independent Health clients Jan. 1.

Not every Independent Health product will feature this benefit, but the vast majority will, said Frank Sava, a spokesman for the carrier.

The benefit will be available as a rider for large employers, who must decide whether to offer it as part of their employees’ coverage starting next year, Sava said.

Tops will keep track of members’ produce shopping and forward this information to Independent Health, which will issue a co-branded Tops gift card with the appropriate value once every quarter.

Members can earn up to $1,000 per family policy or $500 per single policy annually. The gift cards can be used to purchase anything in the store, except tobacco products, but officials involved with the program hope the money is used to buy more fruits and vegetables.

Independent Health, not Tops, is covering the cost of the reward credits.

Independent Health has a number of programs meant to motivate people to exercise more, eat well and take better care of themselves, as do the other major insurance providers in this region.

BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York doesn’t have a supermarket-based, money-back program, but it does have a “robust discount program” that covers health, wellness and fitness programs, said spokeswoman Julie Snyder. And Peter Kates, a Univera Healthcare spokesman, pointed to the carrier’s ActiveUnivera program, which allows members to earn up to $500 annually by recording healthy activities or programs.

email: swatson@buffnews.com

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