Food is Medicine: A Refreshing Perspective

Everywhere we look, we’re confronted with conversations about the relationship between food and health. As we become more aware of the individual and social costs of poor diets, people are coming together to address how we eat through a range of new initiatives and policies.

In one prominent example of this trend, a bipartisan Food is Medicine Working Group, led by Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA), is working to “better align agriculture, nutrition and health care policies.” The group seeks to support research and ensure that federal food policies reflect a growing consensus around the importance of promoting access to healthy, fresh foods. The group is working to develop programs around “medically tailored meals” based on a set of nutrition standards developed by leading experts. Food is Medicine refers to a movement focused on using dietary improvements to prevent and treat illness, thereby improving both individual and public health. Along with that growing understanding about the relationship between food access and public health, new technology is helping to support and promote the role of food as medicine.

New conversations

Food Tank, one of the US’s preeminent think tanks dedicated to food policy, just hosted Rep. McGovern and others for the first in a series of conversations on Capitol Hill focused on “breaking down the silos between the health and agriculture communities.” Moderated by RWG member Danielle Nierenberg, the panel explored the public health benefits of the food-is-medicine approach and discussed how to advocate for that approach to a broader range of policymakers. Designed to explore “The Intersection of Food, AI, and Technology,” Food Tank’s next event is scheduled for July 10. It will feature Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME), a prominent congressional voice on food and agriculture, along with a group of panelists from the food and tech communities. It will focus on how technology can create a food system that works for everyone.

Diverse possibilities

Reflecting on the role food plays in promoting good health, doctors and researchers are identifying a wide range of federal programs that could benefit from adopting a food-is-medicine approach, many of which could benefit from improvements in technology. A new emphasis on behavioral nudges and gamification in promoting better individual food choices by providing practical incentives and subsidies illustrates how AI and algorithms can help advance this approach. Technological advances could also facilitate integrating nutrition best practices into healthcare, where AI is already showing promise as a tool for managing unwieldy medical records. Also, with AI revealing more about which diets make the most sense for each individual, it should play an important role in continuing research about how best to advise different people on what food will be the best medicine for them.

Diverse solutions

A number of programs are already in place, blazing a trail that others can follow in helping promote healthy diets. Wholesome Wave, led by Refresh Working Group member Michel Nischan, has been hard at work promoting Wholesome Rx. A fruit and vegetable prescription program, it empowers doctors to prescribe healthier food for their patients by subsidizing those purchases and allowing them to use these funds via a card-based payment platform. Now, it’s efforts are being used a model for a nationwide push for produce prescription programs.

Because Wholesome Wave’s efforts have been so successful, the USDA renamed its Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives Program (FINI) the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP), paying tribute to the organization’s late co-founder. The program, which is offering 41 million dollars for fiscal year (FY) 2019 projects, includes a call for proposals aimed at developing new technologies to promote healthier eating. With that sort of funding on the horizon, inspired by the amazing work by Wholesome Wave and others, we can hope to see more initiatives to treat food as medicine in the months and years to come.

Ben Thelen
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