Medically Tailored Meals Use Nutritious Food to Treat Disease

We know steps can be taken to maintain and improve functional ability as a part of healthy aging, and as we celebrate Older American’s Month, this May, we remember that nutrition is a critical component of this effort. A current focus on food as medicine emphasizes the importance of using food and nutrition to promote health and prevent disease. The idea behind “food is medicine” programs is simple: provide medically tailored meals (MTM) to patients who are facing serious health challenges and improve access to nutritious foods to address nutrition security.

These programs have been gaining traction in recent years, and for good reason. They have been shown to significantly improve health outcomes while reducing healthcare costs, especially for older adults at risk of malnutrition. By implementing additional MTM programs across the country, we could help prevent 1.6 million hospitalizations and save insurers a net amount of $13.6 billion per year, after paying for the cost of food, with most savings occurring within Medicare and Medicaid.

Food Is Medicine Movement

The historic 2022 White House Conference on Hunger, Health, and Nutrition posed a unique opportunity to increase access to MTM. One organization at the forefront of the food is medicine movement is the Food Is Medicine Coalition, a national group of nonprofits that prepare and deliver medically tailored meals, groceries and nutrition services to people with severe and chronic illnesses across the United States.

An initiative aimed at expanding access to medically tailored meals, The Food Is Medicine Accelerator, accepts applications every spring. The Accelerator provides funding, resources and expert training to nonprofits working to expand access to these programs. It also offers training and technical assistance to help organizations build capacity and sustainability. The coalition advocates for policy changes that would allow for greater access to these programs.

One such policy change is the Medicaid section 1115 demonstration waiver, which uses federal funds to test innovative approaches to health with programs like food is medicine. These waivers are gaining popularity and allow states to provide MTM to Medicaid beneficiaries with certain chronic conditions, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer. As of 2023, multiple states have received approval for the waiver for food is medicine, with more expected to follow. There is hope that MTM can be extended to Medicare as well.

‘The cost for six months of meals roughly equals one night’s stay in a hospital.’

Private companies also are leveraging food is medicine. When a recent Community Assessment Survey found that half of older adults in Indiana reported lack of access to affordable quality food, Blue Cross Blue Shield provided $4.4 million to provide fresh produce to senior meal sites or as part of home-delivered meals.

Studies have shown that providing MTM to patients can lead to significant improvements in health outcomes, while reducing healthcare costs. Kaiser Permanente found high-risk patients diagnosed with heart failure were half as likely to be readmitted to the hospital after 90 days if they received MTMs. The cost for six months of meals roughly equals one night’s stay in a hospital. Data like this can be used to garner support to start other programs. A number of organizations have pledged their support to collecting more data with the Food Is Medicine Research Initiative.

What’s Next for Food Is Medicine

The Aspen Institute recently published a Food Is Medicine Action Plan that outlines recommendations for improving access to medically tailored meals. The plan calls for greater collaboration between healthcare providers, insurance companies and community organizations. It also recommends that the federal government include funding for food is medicine programs in the upcoming Farm Bill, a critical piece of legislation that shapes our nation's food and agricultural policy. Other potential nutrition additions to the farm bill could incentivize the use of SNAP for purchasing fruits and vegetables, support online shopping in SNAP purchasing to increase accessibility for people who are too sick to shop and cook for themselves, and create a program providing boxes of locally sourced produce to Medicaid beneficiaries.

Screening for food insecurity and malnutrition is an essential part of targeting food is medicine and MTM programs. Healthcare providers should regularly screen patients for these risks, especially older adults who are at a higher risk of malnutrition. By identifying individuals who are at risk, healthcare providers can intervene early and prevent health complications. But screening alone is not enough. We must take action to address the root causes of food insecurity and malnutrition, including poverty, lack of access to healthy food and social isolation. MTMs are a critical component of this.

Making a Meaningful Impact

Food is medicine programs have the potential to revolutionize the healthcare industry and improve the health and well-being of millions of Americans, making these programs a win-win solution for patients and healthcare providers alike. By providing access to nutritious food and medically tailored meals, we can address food insecurity and malnutrition, improve health outcomes, and reduce healthcare costs.

Improving nutrition for all can only increase how many people can age well and maintain function. We must work together to expand access to these programs, advocate for policy changes that support their implementation, and address the root causes of food insecurity and malnutrition.

Jean Terranova, JD, is senior director of Policy and Research, at Community Servings in Boston. Lisa Zullig, MS, RDN, CSG, CDN, is director of Nutrition Services at God’s Love We Deliver in New York City.

Photo credit: Shutterstock/marilyn barbone