Healthcare Economics

‘Food as medicine’ programs could save the US billions

The Biden administration is letting states use Medicaid dollars for food programs.
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· 3 min read

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Food is not just a good photography subject for your foodie Instagram account. It could also be medicine.

The US government has started exploring the idea of “food as medicine” with programs that researchers believe could lower healthcare spending by billions of dollars each year.

Last September, the Biden administration released the National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, which outlined plans to expand access to medically tailored meal programs.

Medically tailored meals are pretty self-explanatory—they’re meals “designed by a registered dietician nutritionist, specifically for the medical needs of the person who will be receiving it,” said Karen Pearl, who works as special advisor to the president and CEO of God’s Love We Deliver, a New York City organization that provides medically tailored meals to about 11,000 people annually.

Patients have to get referrals from a healthcare professional to be eligible for the meals and “have a diagnosis that makes it impossible for them to shop or cook themselves,” Pearl said.

Following pilot programs in a few states, the Biden administration began approving requests in February for states to use Medicaid dollars to buy food and nutritional counseling. Private payers are also starting to test similar programs, according to Tufts Now.

“These interventions that Medicaid is approving are really part of healthcare,” Pearl said. “They’re saying, ‘This person, because of their medical issue, needs produce [or] prescriptions to make sure that they are eating the right food for them.’”

The cost of food insecurity

Food insecurity is a widespread problem in the US. More than 10% of all households experienced food insecurity in 2020, according to the latest data from the CDC, which also states that food insecurity leads to $77 billion in unnecessary healthcare spending each year.

“Food insecurity policies may be important mechanisms to contain healthcare expenditures,” per the CDC.

In October 2022, Tufts University estimated that medically tailored meal programs could save the US $13.6 billion per year, mostly within Medicare and Medicaid.

The study—funded by the National Institutes of Health and supported with data from the 2019 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, which tracks medical care spending among adults in the US—found that increased access to such programs could prevent 1.6 million hospitalizations every year. Over 10 years, the study estimates that could translate to $185.1 billion in savings and 18.3 billion less hospitalizations.

The researchers looked at how medically tailored meal programs have worked over the past two decades and found that among adults with diet-sensitive diseases, the programs lowered annual healthcare spending by 19.7% and hospitalizations by 47%.

“The benefits of adding medically tailored meals to the treatment plan are really substantial,” Pearl said.

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