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Food Is Medicine Enhances Health While Slashing Health Care Costs

Donna Lawson, a former school principal struggling with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, discovered the transformative power of medically tailored groceries—a cornerstone of the emerging Food is Medicine movement, in working with her health care team.

These specialized food programs aim to treat or prevent diseases through nutrition, providing patients with meals or groceries targeting their specific health needs.

“As a recipient of medically tailored groceries, I can say that Food is Medicine helped bring me joy and nourishment while relieving the symptoms of my disease and the food insecurity my family and I were experiencing, Lawson said.

Lawson's story captures the vast potential of Food is Medicine initiatives to improve health outcomes and food security, promote health equity, and revolutionize nutrition as a powerful tool for well-being.

The Path to a Healthier Future

The U.S. spends around $1.1 trillion per year to treat chronic, diet-related diseases, equal to all the money Americans pay for food and an alarming burden on individuals and the health system. Our food system’s true costs are not included in this hefty price tag, but are found in the impacts on health, the environment, and social and economic inequity.

A new report by researchers from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, supported by The Rockefeller Foundation, examines how scaling Food is Medicine programs nationally can lead to better health and be cost-effective or even cost-saving.

Drawing on our True Cost Accounting methodologies, researchers found promising results from two compelling case studies:

Medically tailored meals and groceries

  • Providing medically tailored meals and groceries to eligible recipients could avert 6 million hospitalizations annually.
  • Even after implementation costs, the policy could lead to a net cost savings of $13.6 billion over one year and $185 billion over a decade.

Produce prescription programs

  • Expanding produce prescriptions for diabetes patients could avert 292,000 cardiovascular events.
  • These programs proved highly cost-effective from a health care perspective compared to alternatives.

Unlocking the Potential

To succeed in the long term, we must act now to ensure these programs are built to scale. Here are four questions policymakers, business professionals across the health care system, employers, and community leaders should consider in bringing Food is Medicine programs to life.

  1. How can we sustain and improve data collection to better understand the value of these programs?

The positive impact of these programs on participants and communities is well documented, but more robust, patient-centered research is needed. A coordinated, collaborative approach to data collection is essential for government agencies seeking proof of program effectiveness, scalability, public health outcomes, and cost savings. Qualitative, mixed-methods research will enable informed policymaking.

Academia, insurers and employers can use claims data and healthcare expenses to assess health outcomes, cost-effectiveness, and customer satisfaction. Moreover, health care providers can collect patient-level data on patients’ health status and feedback.

  1. How should leaders across sectors consider the results from this report and ongoing data collection efforts?

Data-gathering efforts can guide strategic investment, inform evidence-based policies, and shape program design.

The growing evidence base is crucial for federal, state, and local agencies overseeing health care, social services, and nutritional programs, such as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, Veterans Affairs, Indian Health Services, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A coordinated, whole-of-government approach is essential to center equity and share learnings, and will require a commitment to public funding, research initiatives, and enabling policies.

Aligning with sustainability and social goals can positively impact individual companies and broader sector reputation and influence, creating an opportunity for market expansion, product development, and customer engagement.

  1. What does this mean for patients?

Poor diets contribute significantly to health issues and mortality in the United States, yet nutrition remains largely overlooked in the healthcare system. Integrating Food is Medicine programs represents a shift toward holistic health care for patients.

The Tufts study offers the potential for improved health outcomes, which could lead to reduced personal health expenses, fewer ER visits, improved chronic conditions management, and, ultimately, a better quality of life. These programs can also address food insecurity by providing support to purchase fresh produce or meals tailored to specific dietary needs, improving access to wholesome, nutrient-rich foods.

  1. What other value might these programs offer?

Food and nutrition programs can fuel collaborations between health care systems, local farmers of all sizes, food distributors, and community-led operations. These partnerships can strengthen local supply chains, encourage regenerative food production practices, create jobs, and uplift economies.

In essence, scaling Food is Medicine programs can help create a more secure and resilient food environment for individuals and communities. We hope you’ll join us through commitment, investment, and collaboration to pave the way for these programs to succeed and help create a healthier, more equitable America.