Food is medicine: Medically tailored meals can help more patients get back to health

“You are what you eat.” “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

Society has used these adages and others to explain the relationship between food and health. But here is some food for thought: Food is medicine.

The idea of preventative and therapeutic use of nutritious food to help patients suffering from chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease is making its way into mainstream medicine. Although the link between nutrition and health has been long established in the medical community, and prescribed medical diets are commonplace in hospital discharge orders, widely accessible resources for filling those dietary prescriptions have never been available. Until now.

Across the commonwealth and the country, doctors are referring patients to organizations that provide medically tailored meals. While this is not yet widely covered by insurance, it should be -- and in government, we should help to move the initiative along.

For many patients, the healthy food that is part of their disease treatment, and often prescribed by their health provider, may not be available at their local grocery stores or, even if it is, may be unaffordable. Some patients may not physically be able to prepare healthy meals. Prepared and delivered medically tailored meals remove those barriers and are a relief for the patients, their families and our health care system as a whole.

Medicaid, private health insurance companies and other programs can be used as a vehicle to move this initiative forward. In Oregon, Meals on Wheels has provided this type of service for local hospitals and the outcome is this: people with chronic illnesses were half as likely to be admitted to the hospital over time compared to those patients not participating in or without access to the program.

In Philadelphia, MANNA does similar work, providing medically tailored meals and evidence-based nutrition counseling at no cost to thousands of Pennsylvanians with chronic illnesses or disease. Research on MANNA’s impact found a 31% reduction in its clients’ monthly health care costs, primarily from a reduction in hospitalizations and shorter in-patient stays for those who were hospitalized.

Community based organizations, like MANNA and Meals on Wheels, are trusted providers with proven experience connecting their services to vulnerable patients.

Insurance providers can support their work by expanding access to insurance coverage for medically tailored meals. A recent example: Highmark Health announced in December 2022 the launch of a new pilot program to provide medically tailored meals to its insurance members.

These initiatives can be a model for promoting medically tailored meals on a universal scale. These meals work in everyone’s favor, especially for patients in areas where access to care is limited and food insecurity is high.

Here is the proof and why this is so important: along with reducing hospitalizations and health care costs, research has found that medically tailored meals led to a 16% net reduction in health care costs, 72% fewer skilled nursing facility admissions and a 70% drop in emergency department visits.

Legislation to be introduced by state Reps. Donna Bullock, Jordan Harris and Malcolm Kenyatta in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives would establish a Medically Tailored Meals Pilot Program that will allow hospitals to provide eligible medical assistance beneficiaries with these prescribed meals and nutrition counseling. The legislators also plan to introduce a resolution that would encourage health insurers to follow in Highmark Health’s footsteps and provide coverage for medically tailored meals for beneficiaries residing in Pennsylvania.

At a time when food insecurity is high and access to care is low for so many of our residents, insurance coverage of these prescribed diets could go a long way to providing the health benefit that all Pennsylvanians should be afforded.