Many factors contribute to the health and wellbeing of every individual, but one of the most basic foundational pieces for any healthy life is access to a balanced diet of nutritious foods. For many individuals living at, or close to, poverty levels, the cost of adequate nutritious food can be prohibitive, leaving them to rely on inferior alternatives or even go without. For individuals also living with chronic illnesses, the lack of a nutritious diet can leave their body weak and struggling to cope with their condition. As part of the growing movement to treat a whole person and not just a symptom, and in recognition of the ever-growing problem of inadequate food among vulnerable populations, a number of programs have developed across the country to help fill this nutritional gap.
Food is Medicine
In July 2017, California became the first state to pass a bill to promote “medically tailored meals.”This legislation creates a program that will provide healthy, balanced meals for individuals who are Medi-Cal beneficiaries and who also suffer from a list of specific chronic illnesses. “Medically tailored” means that the conditions, symptoms, and allergies of each individual will be taken into account in order to provide the best possible nutrition to their specific needs. Like many programs designed to address social determinants of health, this pilot program is designed to lower healthcare costs in addition to improving the wellbeing of individuals. The program managers hope to show that by providing food security to high-risk individuals, they can reduce hospital readmissions, reduce admissions to long-term care facilities and reduce emergency room utilization.
On the other side of the country, the Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance (MANNA) has been serving the greater Philadelphia area for over 25 years. MANNA was founded by just seven people with the goal of feeding critical AIDS patients. From its humble beginnings, this nonprofit has expanded to serve over 95,000 medically appropriate meals a month to individuals who suffer from a number life threatening illnesses that include HIV/AIDS, Cancer, and renal diseases. In addition to their patients reporting improved energy and increased ability to tolerate medical treatments, an extensive study published in 2013 showed that recipients of the MANNA program saw significantly reduced healthcare costs that came, in part, from shorter hospital stays and lower inpatient costs.
The Movement is Growing
In addition to MANNA, there are many other organizations across the country that act on their belief that food is medicine. Project Angel Food in California delivers nutritious meals to homebound men, women, and children who are critically ill and unable to care for themselves. Project Open Hand in Georgia combines home delivered meals with nutrition education training to help individuals use proper dietary choices to manage their chronic illnesses. Open Arms Minnesota provides 600,000 meals a year to chronically ill patients and their caregivers. These organizations, and many more like them, are part of the Food is Medicine Coalition. The Coalition is an organization that exists to share best practices for providing medically appropriate meals, promote research into the effectiveness of food service programs, and encourages public policies that support food and nutrition programs for individuals with chronic illnesses.
Proper nutrition is an essential component of whole person care. Individuals living with chronic illnesses cannot hope to have the strength and energy required to cope with their conditions without access to a variety of nutritious food. By recognizing that nutrition is an essential piece of whole person care, nonprofits and public programs from coast to coast are helping individuals manage their health, improve their wellbeing and lower their medical costs by the simple act of providing nutritious meals.