Starting a Food As Medicine Movement

Imagine this… You’re diagnosed with a serious health condition. To your surprise, your doctors prescribe healthy food in addition to medication. Because good nutrition will decrease your health care costs, your health insurance provider offers to pay for medically tailored meals to be delivered to your home. Then, as your health improves, you’re offered classes and information on how to prepare meals at home that will help you to get and stay well.

At Project Angel Heart, we’d like to bring this vision to life, and we’ve teamed up with other food and nutrition service providers from around the U.S. to do just that.

Unfortunately, while there’s evidence that medically tailored nutrition can make us feel better, improve health outcomes, and lower health care costs, many health care providers still don’t include nutrition in treatment plans. Most insurance providers don’t cover the cost of home-delivered meals, and public funding is extremely limited. Many people facing both food insecurity and a life-threatening condition are malnourished, worsening their condition and quality of life.

At Project Angel Heart, our aim is to provide food as medicine, free of charge, to Coloradans who are sick and unable to shop or cook for themselves. Our sister agencies, like God’s Love We Deliver in New York, Project Open Hand in San Francisco, Community Servings in Boston, and many others, do similar work in their communities.

But we’d like to do more, so we’ve teamed up with sister agencies and other food/nutrition service providers around the country to address shared challenges and advocate for the inclusion of nutrition into chronic disease treatment plans. The Food is Medicine Coalition is made up of 27 agencies located in 16 states and the District of Columbia. Each year the Coalition collectively provides more than 10.5 million meals to 63,000 people. While we each have unique missions, eligibility, governance, and program offerings (home-delivered meals, congregate meals, pantry programs, medical nutrition therapy, etc.), our core philosophy is to provide quality meals, made from scratch, to support people struggling with illness.

Food Is Medicine Coalition Research Panel #ACBP16
At a 2016 Food Is Medicine Coalition symposium, members discussed the need for quantitative and qualitative research on the effectiveness of medically tailored meals. (Image credit: @ImageThink)

We share knowledge, challenges, solutions, and best practices, which often lead to improvements to our programs. We collaborate to help broaden expertise and pave the way for advocacy efforts that will improve health care systems.

I love data (nerd alert!), so I co-chair the coalition’s research committee, which is tasked with curating research on the connection between medically tailored nutrition and the health of chronically ill individuals. I’ve got first-hand access to research and innovation happening all over the country—in academia, medical research facilities, and in our own organizations! Coalition members (including Project Angel Heart) are engaged in 11 research studies investigating the impact of medically tailored meals on health outcomes, dietary quality, quality of life, readmissions, costs, and behavior changes.

We’re also working together to pursue new ways to partner with health care providers. Project Angel Heart is one of 13 coalition members collaborating with health care providers to provide meals as part of a comprehensive chronic disease management plan. Meals for Care Transitions, launched late last year, is our local effort to bring food as medicine to patients recovering at home after hospitalization.

Are we witnessing the start of a national movement to view food as medicine? As members of the Food is Medicine Coalition, we certainly hope so! Want to help? Watch for news about the links between nutrition and health; there’s more every day. Next time you see your doctor, talk about nutrition or seek other ways to use food as medicine in your own life. And, of course, consider investing in our program! We need your help to not only provide food as medicine for those in need, but also to kick-start a movement that may ultimately impact our nation’s health.

This post was originally published on February 16, 2017.

Rachael Raab spearheads Project Angel Heart’s foundation, government, and corporate grants program, as well as strategic projects and advocacy-related efforts. Prior to joining Project Angel Heart, Rachael was a project coordinator for the New Venture Fund, a nonprofit serving as a fiscal sponsor for a variety of public interest projects, including Ben Affleck’s Eastern Congo Initiative. She has a master’s in public administration degree (concentration in nonprofit management) from the University of Colorado Denver and holds a B.A. in communications & journalism from St. John Fisher College. In her free time, Rachael enjoys snowboarding, hiking, backpacking, and watching bad sci-fi movies.