Half a century after Americans began fighting hunger with monthly food stamps, the nation’s physicians and policymakers are focusing more than ever on what’s on each person’s plate.
In the 21st century, food is seen as medicine — and a tool to cut health care costs.
The “food is medicine” concept is simple: If chronically ill people eat a nutritious diet, they’ll need fewer medications, emergency room visits and hospital readmissions.
The food is medicine spectrum ranges from simply encouraging people to plant a garden and learn to cook healthfully, as state Sen. Judy Lee, a Republican, does in North Dakota — “We don’t do policies about gardening,” she said — to an intensive California pilot project that delivers two medically tailored meals plus snacks daily and offers three counseling sessions with a registered dietitian over 12 weeks.
The California Legislature last year became the first in the nation to fund a large-scale pilot project to test food is medicine. The three-year, $6 million project launched in April will serve about a thousand patients with congestive heart failure in seven counties.
“The state puts a huge amount of money into health care, and one of the biggest costs is medication,” Assemblyman Phil Ting, a Democrat and chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee, said in an interview. “So the hope is people will live longer and this project will also reduce the need for medication.”
The food is medicine concept has been around for a while. Since the 1980s, nonprofits such as Project Open Hand in San Francisco, Community Servings in Boston, God’s Love We Deliver in New York and MANNA or Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance in Philadelphia have provided medically tailored meals for patients with HIV, diabetes, cancer and heart disease. They are largely funded by donations and grants.
Seeing the programs’ successes, some states are taking a larger role. Massachusetts is developing a food is medicine plan with a goal of integrating programs scattered around the state so more residents can benefit. Legislative policy proposals are expected next spring.
Food is medicine goes beyond traditional advice to eat more fruits and vegetables. Projects pay for people to purchase produce and offer nutrition counseling and cooking classes, so they’ll know which foods to choose or avoid and how to prepare them. For example, watermelon is healthy for some, but not for a diabetic.