Healthy Diets for Better Health
With research showing that a healthy diet is often the best prescription for preventing many chronic illnesses, Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School, was on Capitol Hill today to support the launch of a Food Is Medicine Working Group within Congress’s House Hunger Caucus, which will explore policies to alleviate hunger and the burden it places on America’s health and economy.
“We plan to work together with our colleagues to elevate this Food Is Medicine conversation and to promote the need to address hunger as the health issue that it is,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), who organized the group, which includes Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kansas), Rep. Roger Marshall (R-Kansas), and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine).
McGovern said the group would draw on expertise from academics, advocacy groups, and industry to find policies to improve the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, school lunches, and related programs. “My hope for this working group is that we are able to explore our nation’s anti-hunger safety net to discover ways to make it even better.”
In conjunction with the announcement, the Friedman School, George Washington University, Harvard Law School, and the hunger-relief charity Feeding America hosted a briefing and panel discussion to educate members of Congress and their staffs about the social and fiscal repercussions of poor nutrition.
“As a cardiologist, I’ve been thinking about food—and how food is missing from the health-care system—for twenty years now,” Mozaffarian said. “One in four dollars in the federal budget is spent on health care. One in five dollars in the entire U.S. economy is spent on health care, and that is only going to go up until we address food.”
Mozaffarian said the United States could, for example, provide more nutrition education to physicians and nurses as part of their training and require Medicare and Medicaid to cover the cost of fruit and vegetable prescriptions, written by physicians, to encourage patients to eat more produce.
The panelists spoke about scaling up programs that are already working, such as providing medically tailored meals for high-need, high-risk patients when they are released from the hospital—studies have shown that doing so reduces hospital readmissions, saving taxpayers billions of dollars each year.
Cost-savings was a common thread in the presentations. McGovern cited a paper, released today by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, that showed low-income adults who participate in SNAP incur $1,400 less in medical bills each year compared to people who qualify for SNAP but don’t participate—about a 25 percent savings.
“These early interventions have incredible potential to reduce hunger, reduce human suffering and lower health care costs, ultimately saving us money,” McGovern said. “But more importantly they improve the quality of life for our fellow citizens.”
Julie Flaherty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.