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SIEGEL: The positive economic effects of healthy food

Healthy food prescriptions offer a bipartisan way to address the health care debate

<p>The integration of programs encouraging healthy eating within the healthcare system have the power to positively impact a space desperate for innovation.&nbsp;</p>

The integration of programs encouraging healthy eating within the healthcare system have the power to positively impact a space desperate for innovation. 

The national debate over government-controlled health care has increasingly dominated the political scene. With the 2020 presidential election around the corner, candidates grapple with competing theories on both sides of the spectrum — Medicare for All has emerged as a policy test for the majority of Democrats, while Trump continues to vehemently express his desire to repeal Obamacare. While the political divide in the healthcare debate shakes the nation’s confidence in the government’s ability to fix our broken system, a new study offers a way to bridge this gap. In considering the economic effects of preventative care, specifically healthy food prescriptions, we have the potential to find common ground on the responsible provision of health care.    

In March, researchers from Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy published a study indicating that “health insurance coverage to offset the cost of healthy food for Medicare and/or Medicaid participants would be highly cost effective after five years and improve outcomes.” Essentially, if providers were to cover 30 percent of the cost of healthy food purchases in supermarkets, the study estimates the prevention of 3.28 million cardiovascular disease cases, as well as 120,000 diabetes cases. Further, the broader healthy food incentive would lead to cost savings between $39.7 billion and $100.2 billion. As healthy food prescriptions emerge in private health insurance programs, this study validates the efficacy and efficiency of such preventative treatments to improve health and lower healthcare utilization.

The integration of programs encouraging healthy eating within the healthcare system have the power to positively impact a space desperate for innovation. While fruit and vegetable prescriptions have been proposed and implemented, they have not been scaled, ultimately lacking the evidence that this research provides. The passage of the 2018 Farm Bill included a provision supporting a Produce Prescription Program, establishing the importance of investing in a food is medicine model. However, this program does not have dedicated funding, but instead pulls money from the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program. With this new information, legislators should propose the provision of independent funds for this program, championing the call to invest in prevention. 

The Republican argument as it relates to the healthcare debate centers itself largely on cost-effectiveness. The institution of public insurance programs for the elderly and poor left the U.S. with a patchwork system of private and public insurance, comprised of a variety of targeted programs. Since their inception, Republicans have advocated for competition among private insurers and the flexibility of states to opt in or out of national health care initiatives. Most recently, they have pushed forward a “repeal and replace” mantra, highlighting President Obama’s shortfalls without providing much in exchange. On the contrary, Democrats have pushed themselves up against the wall on the other side of the room, calling for a comprehensive universal health care overhaul. Healthy food prescriptions offer both parties an opportunity to remove themselves from their respective walls concerning health care. Food interventions help to stop healthcare issues and costs from even appearing, a solution that both sides can agree attacks the problem at its source and cuts costs significantly.

Last year, California became the first state to prescribe food as medicine with their pilot program, which funds nonprofit organizations to deliver specific, free meals to those insured by Medicaid. Recipients of this service experienced medical costs at a 55 percent lower rate than other individuals, demonstrating the significant cost saving effects of this model. Subsidizing nutrition and capitalizing on the idea that food is medicine are necessary next steps in addressing questions on healthcare that have been largely ignored. Including food as a formal part of preventative treatment is transformative, and this study — along with the success of California’s pilot program — gives us the missing link between food and medicine. It is up to us to act on the power of food to ignite a paradigm shift in the healthcare arena. 

Lucy Siegel is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily and was an Opinion Editor for the 128th term of The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at