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Food is Medicine Action Plan Shows How to Transform Food Access in the Health Care System

Food & Society at the Aspen Institute and Harvard Law School experts outline research opportunities for the Food is Medicine field to prevent food and nutrition insecurity in the future; January 27 webinar to highlight findings and recommendations.

Today, Food & Society at the Aspen Institute and the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation of Harvard Law School (CHLPI) released the Food is Medicine Research Action Plan outlining a comprehensive set of recommendations to expand and strengthen research on nutrition interventions in health care. The first-of-its-kind report provides a clear roadmap to identify and gather the information that will transform the way our health care system addresses patients’ food-related needs—a roadmap that will be a critical tool, as continued food access challenges during Covid-19 clearly demonstrate. 

“Enabling health care providers to connect their patients with the foods they need to thrive can have an enormous impact on our population’s health,” says Corby Kummer, executive director of Food & Society at the Aspen Institute and senior lecturer at Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. “Imagine if health care providers had the tools easily at hand to give people access to health-promoting food—especially people with chronic conditions, and who need to be in isolation or quarantine. The Action Plan shows the way to give providers those tools.” 

The Action Plan gives a first-time, succinct but in-depth summary of Food is Medicine research to date—research that overwhelmingly demonstrates the effectiveness of nutrition interventions such as medically tailored meals, medically tailored groceries, and produce prescriptions. The authors list 26 specific recommendations for future research, offering guidance on how to embed equity throughout the research continuum, ensuring that research will yield valuable and actionable information, identifying urgent questions that have yet to be explored, and describing how funders can and should support future efforts. Among the several recommendations in the report are the following: 

  • Research must consistently explore the value and impact of Food is Medicine interventions beyond health care cost and utilization.
  • A federal agency or federally appointed entity should be formally tasked with coordinating efforts across federal agencies to explore the impact of Food is Medicine interventions on many populations and geographies.
  • Researchers should seek to understand the diverse experiences and broader context of the population that will receive or has already received the intervention.

Among the authors’ findings is a clear call for equity-centered research. Food and health systems are enormously complex and, for many, may be difficult to navigate, access, and trust as the result of historic oppressions. The Action Plan notes that equity must be centered in research conception, design, execution, interpretation dissemination, and translation—and provides specific questions researchers must first address before implementing interventions. 

“When it comes to nutrition interventions, we need to know who can benefit, the extent of the support they need, and how long it’s needed,” says Sarah Downer, associate director for whole person care at the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation. “And we can’t afford to ignore practical questions about who might need the most support, what people actually want to eat, and whether and how they shop and cook. Our report lists specific recommendations for aligning research plans with equity principles. This is about encouraging research that can translate into real change.” 

The research included in the Action Report was made possible through funding by the Walmart Foundation

“Having this research of proven practices on nutrition interventions in one succinct report is a game changer,” says Julie Gehrki, vice president of philanthropy, Walmart.org. “The Walmart Foundation is thrilled to see how this summary of evidenced-based programs makes it easier for the health care system to remove barriers to nutritious food for their patients and how the roadmap for future research helps drive greater adoption of food is medicine programs.” 

The Food is Medicine Research Action Plan, as well as an Executive Summary, are available for download. Additionally, Food & Society and CHLPI will host a free webinar on Thursday, January 27 from 12:00 to 1:30 p.m. (Eastern) to discuss the findings and recommendations of the report. The speakers include Corby Kummer, Executive Director, Food & Society; Sarah Downer, JD, Associate Director, Whole Person Care, Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation of Harvard Law School; Jim McGovern, Congressman for the 2nd District of Massachusetts; Trina Ragain, MSPH, Director of Policy & Innovation, Operation Food Search; Pamela Schwartz, MPH, Executive Director for Community Health, Kaiser Permanente; Hilary Seligman, MD, MAS, Professor at the University of California San Francisco; and clients of Community Servings and Operation Food Search. Details and registration are available at: https://bit.ly/FIMResearch.

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