“Prescriptions” for healthy food help Pennsylvanians manage diabetes and lower health care costs

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty / seb_ra
Source: Getty / seb_ra
Alarmed by the exponential increase of adults diagnosed with type II diabetes and disproportionate toll the chronic disease takes on food insecure individuals, a regional health care provider and food bank serving Pennsylvania decided to test whether the old adage to let food be thy medicine could help manage both issues.

And the answer is yes.

Almost one year ago, Gesinger Health System and the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank officially cut the ribbon at their Fresh Food Farmacy and began ‘prescribing’ food-insecure, diabetic patients in Shamokin, Penn., with free food and guidance to help keep their disease under control.

Participants visit the health center once a week to pick up 10 meals based on the American Diabetes Association’s recommended diet that is rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein and whole grains and is low in sodium, saturated fat and carbohydrates, according to Alicia Beachy, associate project manager for the Fresh Food Farmacy at Geisinger.

The program also provides education in diabetes self-management – so teaching participants how to read nutrition labels, set goals and know the difference between good and bad carbs. A registered dietitian, registered nurse healthcare manger, community health associate and pantry manager also work with recipients to correct behavior and close care gaps, Beachy said.

“Really it is trying to set them up for long term success outside of those 10 meals we provide,”​ she said.

She also noted that the program doesn’t stop with just the registered patient. Rather, it recognizes that food and eating is a communal event, which is why the program provides meals for the patient’s entire household.

“We are trying to make a generational impact, as well. So, we are seeing grandkids come in with their grandparents and getting excited about cucumbers,”​ Beachy said.

But finding cucumbers and other fresh produce in central Pennsylvania in the middle of the winter isn’t easy – which is where the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank comes in.

“Community partnership with the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank has helped us immeasurably in setting up this process and figuring out obstacles along the way. We wouldn’t have been able to do it without them,”​ she said.

Food insecure individuals need programs like the Fresh Food Farmacy

 ​Andy Dessel, the health innovations manager at the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, said the partnership made sense given the food bank’s mission to not only feed everyone who is hungry, but to ensure the food they receive is nutritious.

“We have a strong understanding of the social determinants of health and we believe that better access and better foods equals better health,”​ he said, noting that “food insecure individuals have increased prevalence of being at risk for chronic disease, including cardiovascular disease, heart disease, osteoporosis, obesity, and of course, diabetes.”

In addition, he said a strong motivator for the partnership is that 66% of Feeding America’s clients have had to choose between paying for food and paying for medicine.    

‘Transformative results’

While the program may have faced some criticism and doubt when it launched, Dessel said, it has seen “transformative results that show our guiding principle that food is medicine can really produce meaningful results.”

For example, Beachy pointed to one patient – Rita – who was hesitant to join the program at first was able to reduce her hemoglobin A1c by 8.5 points, lose 46 pounds and reduce her LDL triglycerides by 75%.

“She is not alone,”​ added Beachy. “Our average patience is showing a 2 point reduction in their A1c, and research shows that for every one point you can reduce your A1c you can see $8,000 to $12,000 in health claim savings … which is a clear ROI.”

In addition, Beachy noted that participants are experiencing a fewer admissions and visits to the emergency room and an increase in general care visits, which is “a very good thing.”

Geisinger and the Centeral Pennsylvania Food Bank’s partnership is rare, but not unique. In fact several similar arrangements have popped up around the US to prescribe healthy food as a way to manage chronic disease – and early results by this and other programs suggests that they are both scalable and a strong investment.

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