June 2, 2022 – The idea of food as medicine dates back thousands of years, so it makes sense that programs based on the concept already exist. Most fall into two categories: produce prescriptions and medically tailored meals. Both are gaining traction as research emerges to support their effectiveness.
Produce prescriptions are exactly what they sound like: Vouchers or cards from a health care provider that can be used to buy fresh produce. Not just anyone can get them, though – they’re aimed at people with conditions related to diet, like diabetes, obesity, and hypertension, or people with food insecurity, who may be more likely to have those diseases. With better access to nutritious produce, proponents say, their need for costly health care treatments will go down. While these programs are becoming more widespread, funding is often limited and short-term.
- The Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP) is a U.S. Department of Agriculture program to increase the amount of produce that low-income people eat. Funded by the Farm Bill of 2018, it provides three types of grants for local groups to explore the possibilities. One of the three: produce prescriptions. The goal of these grants is to reduce visits to doctors and reduce health care costs. GusNIP produce prescription trials are scheduled to run through 2023 in 19 states. Click here for more information on existing programs.
- Thirty-eight states already have some kind of prescription produce program, according to the National Produce Prescription Collaborative, a coalition of practitioners, researchers, and advocates.
- Health care groups are getting in on this idea, too. In Pennsylvania, Geisinger has “Fresh Food Farmacy” centers at three hospitals. They provide food specifically to people with diabetes. And in Southern California, Kaiser Permanente is recruiting 400 patients with diabetes for a randomized controlled trial.
- On the retailer side, produce prescriptions are becoming so common, the National Grocers Association has set up a website to help stores manage them.
Medically tailored meals programs provide prepared, ready-to-eat meals to patients who live at home but are too sick to cook for themselves. The “tailored” part is done by a registered dietitian nutritionist, who creates a meal plan based on the specific needs of each patient. The plans are designed to improve health, lower the cost of care, and keep patients feeling good.
- Eight states, including New York and California, already cover medically tailored meals for Medicaid patients in some circumstances.
- The Food Is Medicine Coalition, a group of nonprofits focused on medical food and nutrition, has two dozen studies underway across the country to look at the effects of medically tailored meals.
- In September, U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-MA, and several co-sponsors introduced the Medically Tailored Home-Delivered Meals Demonstration Pilot Act of 2021. It calls for a 3-year pilot program in which recently hospitalized Medicare enrollees with conditions like congestive heart failure, diabetes, and kidney disease receive medically tailored meals.
- In the private sector, several companies are developing programs. For instance, Epicured provides chef-prepared means that follow the low-FODMAP diet, which reduces certain kinds of carbohydrates that are hard for people to digest, and gluten-free meals. They work with Mount Sinai Health System, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and other health care facilities. And California-based prepared-meals company Everytable, which TheNew York Times called “the Amazon of quinoa bowls,” is launching its own medically tailored meals program.
Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation, Harvard Law School: “Mainstreaming Produce Prescriptions: A Policy Strategy Report.”
Nutrition Incentive Hub: “GusNIP Grantees.”
National Produce Prescription Collaborative.
Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, dean, Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.