Food As Medicine: Rethinking Hunger Relief As Health Care

While it may seem obvious that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is good for people’s health, it’s only recently that food banks and other hunger relief groups, as well as a growing number of startups, are explicitly thinking of themselves as part of the health care system. At the same time, health care providers, motivated in part by new payment incentives that prioritize patients’ health over excessive medical interventions, are now acknowledging the importance of fresh, accessible food to treat and prevent disease.

“Now for the first time in the U.S. and in Boston, incentives are in place for certain health systems to be concerned about the nutritional aspects of their patients’ care because they hold the financial risk,” says Lauren Taylor, a Ph.D. student in health policy and management at Harvard Business School, who studies nutrition and health care.

The food bank and health centers are also collecting data to try to improve care. When patients arrive at the market, each is screened for food insecurity using what’s known as the “Hunger Vital Sign.” They’re asked to think about the last 12 months and answer two questions: “Are you worried about running out of food and not being able to buy more?” or, “Have you actually run out of food and been unable to buy more?”

“The thing about food insecurity is that it’s invisible,” says Dr. Deborah Frank, author of the study and a pediatrician who runs the Grow Clinic for Children at BMC. “You can’t snap a poster child, but like most invisible health risks, it’s widely prevalent.”

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