Many still debate the meaning and context of this Hippocrates quote from over 20 centuries ago: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” The true meaning may be muddled, but this much we know for sure: Proper nutrition is not only an essential building block for all of us, it creates better health for those with serious chronic illnesses, better quality of life and lower medical costs.
How do I know? Because our nonprofit has been providing medically tailored meals for nearly 30 years, and we see the difference it makes. More important, though, is that a recently published study backs up our observations.
The study, published in the April issue of the journal Health Affairs and conducted by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, found that people who received Community Servings’ scratch-made medically tailored meals had fewer inpatient hospital admissions compared to a matched control group.
The study looked at those receiving medically tailored meals and also those receiving traditional food delivery services. Both groups of patients had fewer ambulance trips and hospital emergency department visits, but only the group receiving the medically tailored meals had fewer inpatient admissions. After factoring in the cost of preparing and delivering these meals, this group showed a 16 percent health care cost reduction compared to those not receiving these meals.
The people we serve are very low income and very sick — far too ill to go shopping for groceries or to stand at a stove and prepare a meal. The meals we provide are specifically designed for their needs in relation to their illness. A registered dietitian and chef create meals to fit the complex medical and nutritional needs of those with up to 35 different critical illnesses, including diabetes, HIV/AIDS, cancer, heart disease and kidney disease.
These meals not only benefit the ill people receiving them, but in many instances their families, as well – because an ill mother or father must focus on feeling better and being free from the strain of feeding the family.
Academics and policymakers alike are focused on “social determinants of health” — things like housing, safe neighborhoods and nutrition. Enough studies have been done that clearly demonstrate that addressing social determinants will have a direct benefit on the health of individuals and families who are economically vulnerable.
Now we must learn from all of this research and, as a society, shape our policies to fully recognize and account for social determinants of health. We need to move beyond pilots and demonstration projects to incorporate funding for these vital services in our health programs — not only because it is the humane thing to do and will lead to better medical outcomes and improved quality of life for poor families, but because it will save precious tax dollars, as well.
The savings can be spent on preventing and curing these diseases. The return on investment is clear cut and well documented.
Commercial health plans can gain just as much by funding medically tailored meals as Medicare and Medicaid can. They can replace a high-cost service – inpatient hospitals stays – with a low-cost one. This would allow people who are very ill to spend more time where they want to be: in their home.
Our meals often bridge the gap between people’s inability to live independently and their desire to live in their own home.
Take the case of John, a 59-year-old who has been receiving Community Servings’ meals since September 2017. He is diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and pulmonary embolism and receives a weekly delivery of diabetic and cardiac meals to meet his medical and nutritional needs.
Before he started receiving the meals, his A1C level, which measures blood glucose, was 12.1 percent – far above the normal level of 5.7 percent. After receiving the medically tailored meals for five to six months, he reported his A1C levels dropped to 7 percent, which he attributes to the change in his diet and pre-portioned meals.
It is time for policymakers to accept that food is medicine and to craft public policy that allows sick, impoverished people to gain access to it. We currently have a waiting list of up to six months, and some people are going without nourishing food that could sustain them and strengthen their ability to fight their illness.
There is no disputing the data, because the findings are clear: Food is medicine. It is time to fully serve those who need it.
David B. Waters is the CEO of Community Servings, a Boston-based nonprofit provider of medically tailored meals and nutrition services to individuals and families living with critical and chronic illnesses.
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