Expanding Food as Medicine

According to a study by the U.S. Burden of Disease Collaborators, diet is the leading cause of death in the United States, resulting in half a million deaths a year. 

At a recent event, “Healthy Food as Preventative Medicine: California and Beyond,” hosted by SPUR, leaders using food as medicine share what policy, health care, and communities could look like with healthcare innovation. Panelists included Dr. Steven Chen of ALL IN Alameda County, Mariana Carranza from HealthRIGHT 360, Katie Ettman from SPUR, Katie Garfield from Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation of Harvard Law School, and mediated by Pamela Schwartz from Kaiser Permanente.

To help address people’s health needs across the country, doctors prescribe healthy food for preventative care. These physicians also enlist local growers, farmers markets, and policymakers to advocate for more federal spending for better health care. 

The Lyon Diet Heart Study found that patients on a Mediterranean Diet, consisting of plants, whole grains, and lean meats, reported 72 percent less cardiac death and repeat heart attacks than those on a traditional ‘Western’ diet.

“If you subsidize 30 percent of fruits and vegetables for a diet for a lot of people, you can prevent 1.93 million cardiovascular events and save $40 billion in healthcare costs, ” says Dr. Chen. 

As policies continue to move slowly, organizations are already implementing innovative ways to integrate food as a treatment approach. Carranza shares that HealthRIGHT 360 is partnering with SF-Marin Food Bank to create a food pharmacy at their clinic. Food pharmacies give patients the tools and resources to access healthy foods, recognizing the limitations that may have hindered people in the past.   

However, to make a more significant impact on communities’ health, these food pharmacy initiatives need to be met with the appropriate policy. “We can improve health, we can improve peoples’ happiness, we can also save money, so when we think about those things, not scaling them just doesn’t make sense,” says Ettman. 

To meet the need for food for medicine, a coalition was formed to advocate for the combination of healthcare and food to create medically supportive food and nutrition. 

There are a few ways that California can implement these goals. The coalition is advocating through California Advancing and Innovating Medi-Cal (Cal-AIM), a waiver that allows that state to apply for exemptions to Medicaid to test and pilot new ways to deliver services. 

Another pathway is to receive funding through legislation. Assemblymember Bonta has introduced AB 368 Medically Supported Food to run a two-year pilot program of medically supportive food interventions in three counties. 

As SPUR and other coalitions continue to move forward with administrative and legislative pathways, there are exciting new developments and precedents in other states where the federal government has approved waiver applications. The precedents set in Massachusetts and North Carolina set an example for California and other states moving forward. 

To learn more about the future of food as preventative medicine, you can watch the full event here

Sabrina Endicott (she/her)
Sabrina is a writer and advocate for sustainable food systems. Previously, she wrote for Food Tank on agriculture, sustainable farming and fishing initiatives, and the impact of climate change on food systems. She graduated from the University of San Francisco with a major in Environmental Studies and an emphasis in Sustainable Agriculture. Her passion for food and the environment has given her the opportunity to work in many sectors such as marine science, air pollution, urban farming and reforestation. 

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