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Food as Medicine: A Prescription for Health

Version 2

Simone Saldanha, Second-Year PHN Student

A number of food prescription programs have popped up across the country in recent years in an effort to address both food insecurity and health for patients with diet-related disease. These prescription programs promote “food as medicine” as healthcare providers prescribe healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, just as they would prescribe a bottle of pills. Some programs even print up prescription pads specifically for this purpose.

Food banks especially are following this idea of “hunger to health.” Once known as distributors of solely canned and packaged goods, food banks around the country have increasingly made initiatives to provide their clients with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Many food banks are going one step further.

FreshRx, a program administered by the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, aims to increase access to fresh produce specifically for patients with diet-related diseases. In partnership with three local health clinics in Oklahoma City, FreshRx provides food that help food insecure patients manage their diet-related conditions, such as diabetes and hypertension. The rationale is that access to and consumption of fresh produce will result in better diabetes management, which will improve overall health, reduce medical costs and prevent hospital admission.

FreshRx is one of several Food Prescription (Rx) programs that have begun across the country. These programs often develop from partnerships between clinical medicine and safety net organizations, such as food banks. Through this type of medical-social integration, food banks and other anti-hunger organizations are shifting their focus from a “food in, food out” model to a more health-focused approach as they support the message of food as medicine for promoting health and healing.

With generous support from the Sarah E. Samuels Award for Public Health Nutrition and the Berkeley Food Institute, my work with FreshRx seeks to understand how the program can be effective in improving health for patient populations in Oklahoma City. I also aim to understand the bigger context of food prescription programs and the partnerships that support them.

At this point, these programs are largely supported by grants and non-profit organizations. If these programs can be studied more rigorously and demonstrate positive health outcomes, perhaps they can be taken up and supported by larger health systems and payers. In a changing healthcare landscape, food prescription initiatives could be a step forward in linking prevention and primary care.

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