Food Is Medicine

 

The core philosophy of Food For Thought is that food is medicine.

 

It should come as no surprise that what we put in our bodies affects our health. Nutrition is an overlooked and essential component of the body’s self-healing systems. The difference in diet can mean the difference between failing health and hospitalizations, or a comfortable and active life; particularly for people struggling with conditions like diabetes and congestive heart failure.

This position is not just a philosophy. Studies have shown that intervention with seriously ill patients to provide a healthier diet causes dramatic improvements in health and reductions to health care costs. This is a matter that should concern us all, as Americans spend more than $1 trillion per year on health care related to poor diets.

As a part of the California Food Is Medicine Coalition, Food For Thought advocates at the local, state and federal level for healthy food to be recognized as an effective and cost-saving approach to many serious health conditions. The food we distribute through our programs is vetted and selected by our staff registered dietitian.

Woman holding a watermelon slice
 
Food as medicine

What is Food Is Medicine?

The concept of food as medicine is becoming increasingly popular with media and health care providers. You may have
heard it referenced on the news, social media or even at the doctor’s office, but what does “food is medicine” really mean?

 

The History

The food is medicine movement grew out of a grassroots effort to provide food to people living with HIV/AIDS during the early days of the AIDS epidemic.

In the late 1980s and early 90s, Food For Thought and other forward-thinking nonprofit organizations began to pop up across the country to provide lifesaving food to our neighbors in need.

Over the years, these same nonprofit organizations began to expand, using their expertise to provide nutritious food to people living with other serious illnesses, and in 2010 they formed the Food is Medicine Coalition (FIMC) to further define and expand access to medical nutrition services.

“In the early days of the AIDS crisis, the focus was just on providing people with enough food to keep them alive, but as the medications used to treat HIV improved and people began living longer, we and other agencies shifted our focus from basic care to comprehensive services and medically tailored groceries and meals. We found that eating healthy food had a positive impact on our clients’ overall health.”

Ron Karp, FFT’s Executive Director

The food is medicine movement recognizes that certain foods contribute to the development of chronic illnesses, and that proper nutrition can greatly improve health outcomes, reduce the side effects of some medications, and in some cases, reverse the course of disease.

In 2014, FFT expanded its eligibility and now provides healthy food to thousands of Sonoma County residents affected by a range of conditions that can be managed or improved through nutrition.

NOW: Food For Thought’s Community Supports program is part of a five-year Medi-Cal pilot program, in which service agencies like ours can be reimbursed for providing medically-tailored groceries and meals to Medi-Cal patients referred by their doctor.

 

Positive Health Outcomes

FFT is one the founding members of the California Food Is Medicine Coalition (CalFIMC), an association of community-based nonprofit organizations providing medically-tailored nutrition services in California. One of the goals of this coalition is to demonstrate the impact that our nutrition services have on clinical health outcomes and reduced health care costs.

In Sonoma County, FFT has shown that our medically tailored groceries and meals greatly improve the health and wellness of our clients. In addition to medically tailored grocery orders and/or meals designed by a registered dietitian, clients receive consistent wellness check-ins with FFT’s client services staff.

This nutrition support is often a game changer for clients living with chronic illness. In 2017, the agency collaborated with West County Health Centers to closely monitor patients after receiving three months of a comprehensive nutrition intervention.

Grandma and grandson prepare food
 

The Results

The results revealed that clients experienced the following changes after receiving services:

38 % increase in consumption of fruits and vegetables

24 % decrease in hospital visits

12.69 % drop in average LDL (cholesterol)

77 % decrease in loneliness and isolation

.26 drop in average A1C (blood sugar)

 

“I have seen firsthand the significant nutrition needs on the part of many of our high-risk patients. We serve hundreds of food insecure, low-income patients…Some of these patients have the highest rates of utilization in our system, and my staff and I are pleased to be able to refer some of them to Food For Thought…I strongly believe that Food For Thought is the best group to provide comprehensive nutrition services to the critically ill in Sonoma County.”

Mary Szeczey, former executive director of West County Health Centers
 

Getting the Word Out: FFT’s Advocacy Efforts

In addition to providing lifesaving nutrition services, FFT is a vocal advocate for equitable access to healthy food for our neighbors living with serious medical conditions. Thanks to the advocacy efforts of FFT and our CalFIMC partners, we are finally starting to see changes in health care policy to fund and promote food is medicine interventions in California. We are also pleased to share that Medicare and MediCal is now funding medically-tailored food throughout California.

While this is exciting progress, our work is far from over. FFT and CalFIMC are working hard to ensure that the adoption of medically tailored nutrition services in health care is community-based and equitable. At the state level, the California Department of Health Care Services rolled out a new initiative in 2022 called California Advancing and Innovating MediCal to expand services to include access to medically tailored nutrition and other non-clinical services to address social determinants of health and improve health outcomes.

Locally, FFT continues to make outreach to elected officials and health care entities to advocate for nutrition services as a successful intervention for people living with serious medical conditions. Our vision is a Sonoma County where everyone with a medical need has access to nutritious food to heal and thrive.

FFT’s Executive Director, Ron Karp, and Director of Community Engagement, Helen Myers, at a Hill Day in Washington D.C. during a Food Is Medicine Coalition Symposium
FFT’s Executive Director, Ron Karp, and Director of Community Engagement, Helen Myers, at a Hill Day in Washington D.C. during a Food Is Medicine Coalition Symposium
California Food Is Medicine Coalition