This time of year is full of food related memories. Crisp caramel apples, my father’s over the top Thanksgiving desserts, Nana’s Christmas cannoli and my mother’s dry turkey. It’s also a time to reflect and give thanks for what we have but also to recognize that we have a long way to go to ensure that everyone has adequate access to and ability to purchase healthy foods.
There are over 40 million Americans that live in food insecure households, meaning that at some point during the past year there was uncertainty about where their next meal may come from. At the same time the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that half of all Americans have one or more diet-related chronic diseases, like heart disease, cancer, stroke or diabetes. To address both food insecurity and chronic disease prevention the food system, from producer to consumer, and healthcare system must work together to better utilize food as medicine. As public health professionals, we can be the connectors between these communities.
A great example that combines private business, charitable food networks and federal food assistance programs is a new partnership announced this past spring. Solera Health, an integrated benefit network, and Feeding America, the largest network of food banks in the country have pledged to work with healthcare payers in the Solera network to screen for food insecurity. If a patient screens positive for food insecurity, that patient is then refer to the Feeding America network which connects them with charitable food assistance and helps determine eligibility for federal nutrition assistance programs, like SNAP (formally food stamps). Not only is this intervention best for patients, it is projected to reduce healthcare costs in the short and long term.
Improving the food environment can have a positive impact consumer health and on local and regional agriculture producers and grocers, creating a win-win for consumers and the business community. Addressing the need for more grocery stores, and improving the affordability of and access to healthy foods is a problem that is being addressed through grants provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, such as farm to school, community food projects, food insecurity nutrition incentive programs, fruit and vegetable prescription programs, and healthy food financing initiatives. These grants highlight unique partnerships that improve the food environment for consumers and supports businesses along the local food supply chain.
These partnerships, and grants mechanisms tackle head on both food insecurity and poor diet quality leading to diet-related chronic disease. In this season of reflection, thanksgiving and celebration, I encourage you as public health professionals to step outside usual partnerships and begin to build sustainable systems that support food as a means to health.