Hospitals & Facilities

Kaiser’s Food Is Medicine Center for Excellence puts nutrition programs on the table

The center aims to treat dietary diseases and improve food and nutrition insecurity, the healthcare provider said.
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· 4 min read

The healthcare industry has its own popular food trend: produce prescriptions.

Kaiser Permanente launched its Food Is Medicine Center for Excellence on April 11, an effort by the nonprofit healthcare provider to expand food and nutrition interventions within patient care.

The initiative will centralize Kaiser Permanente’s existing food-based programs, which aim to address “food and nutrition insecurity and the many diet-related, chronic diseases” that affect Kaiser Permanente’s patients, according to a press release. These services include medically tailored meals, produce prescriptions, nutritional counseling, and other efforts to address diet-related diseases.

“Our vision is to ensure that our members can access, afford, and eat nutritious foods in times of need and beyond,” Nancy Gin, EVP and chief quality officer of The Permanente Federation, a leadership organization for all Permanente medical groups, said in a statement.

Kaiser Permanente’s food prescriptions study, which served as a pilot program for the center’s produce prescription initiatives, tested how access to nutritious foods affected weight loss. Participants were provided with dietitian-designed meal plans, recipes, and home-delivered groceries over a six-month period, averaging $110–$190 per week in value depending on household size, per the study’s website.

The results of the pilot program “are in the process of being published,” Gin told Healthcare Brew.

“We want to make sure that we can demonstrate evidence that the approaches to Food Is Medicine are grounded in science,” Gin said. “Ensuring that [patients] have access [to healthy foods] ended up showing a demonstrable improvement in the control of their diabetes.”

Nearly 20% of annual healthcare spending, totaling $50 billion, in the US is attributable to dietary illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, according to a 2019 study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Tufts University. In addition to rising obesity rates, these costs have prompted several food-based initiatives in healthcare, including a Department of Health and Human Services Food is Medicine summit in February.

“For as much as we’re spending [on healthcare in the US], we’re doing a pretty poor job,” Gin said. “A lot of that can be attributable to the inequity of how healthy food is accessed.”

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Kaiser Permanente has committed $50 million to advance Food Is Medicine over the next eight years, according to Gin.

“That is not the only investment,” Gin said. “There continue to be investments…supporting our research teams.”

The center’s researchers are testing the efficacy of produce prescriptions and medically tailored meals, both of which can improve the nutrition of patients who are disadvantaged by social determinants of health, such as low income and limited access to transportation.

Kaiser Permanente also partnered with grocery delivery service Instacart last October to roll out a produce prescription service. Patients are given grocery stipends to pay for their prescriptions through Kaiser Permanente’s virtual storefront on Instacart, which sells fresh and frozen produce, nuts, legumes, and healthier cooking oils like olive oil and avocado oil, according to a statement.

The center’s produce prescriptions echo the idea of food pharmacies, which are growing in popularity among healthcare systems.

“[A food pharmacy is] kind of like a food pantry,” Ethan Balk, a clinical dietician and director of the didactic program in dietetics at New York University (NYU), told Healthcare Brew. “But it’s set up inside the hospital, in this outpatient setting.”

Aimed at making nutrition a part of holistic patient care, food pharmacies prescribe items like fresh fruits and vegetables for patients with limited access, per Balk. Though they are “a good way to tackle food insecurity,” funding could be a barrier to long-term implementation in the future, he said.

“[Food as medicine is] a really great example of how medicine is working to transform itself,” Balk said. “It’s moving in a direction toward trying to impact more of the dimensions of health than just the physical.”

He added that while food pharmacies are promising in theory, the effects may be limited if patients consume large amounts of highly processed foods in addition to the fruits and vegetables from their produce prescriptions.

“We still have a lot of hurdles that we’re always going to be fighting against in terms of these giant corporations that make food for profit,” Balk said.

Navigate the healthcare industry

Healthcare Brew covers pharmaceutical developments, health startups, the latest tech, and how it impacts hospitals and providers to keep administrators and providers informed.