Health and Healthcare Systems

Revolution on a plate: How to scale up food-as-medicine programmes

The food-as-medicine programmes that do exist aren’t yet reaching nearly as many people as they could.

The food-as-medicine programmes that do exist aren’t yet reaching nearly as many people as they could. Image: Reuters/Karen Pulfer Focht

Dani Dudeck
Chief Corporate Affairs Officer, Instacart
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • There is growing recognition of the idea of food as a medical intervention.
  • With the limited reach of existing food-as-medicine programmes, such initiatives must be scaled up to secure the needed impact.
  • Evidential data showing the benefits is the first step to achieving this.

The connection between food and health isn’t new.

Hippocrates is credited with advising his patients to “Let medicine be thy food and let food be thy medicine” in 400 BC. But over the last year, we’ve seen a meaningful shift in the discussion as more physicians, researchers and academics in the US and around the world embrace the idea that nutritious food can help treat or prevent illnesses.

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A new study by researchers at the UMass Chan Medical School, for example, found that when doctors prescribe produce to patients with cardiovascular disease, it can help lower blood sugar and blood pressure levels. Another recent study by healthcare company Abbott showed that food as medicine can lead to clinical improvements in patients with diabetes.

So we know nutritious food can lead to better health. And yet, for too many diet-related conditions, doctors still prescribe medication before food. Meanwhile, the existing food-as-medicine programmes aren’t yet reaching nearly as many people as possible. As a result, too many people are living with conditions that could be improved or prevented with a better diet – and the health disparities between affluent and low-income communities are growing wider.

The good news is that we can help address this – by scaling proven programmes and creating new ones to help more people in more communities access the nutritious, affordable food they need to lead a healthy life. And we can do it by focusing on four things: data, tools, access and collaboration.

1. Data

To be truly accessible, food as medicine needs to be covered by public and private insurance or government programmes. And the only way that will happen is if we have conclusive evidence that these programmes both improve health outcomes and reduce healthcare costs.

While research is teaching us about the power of food as medicine, we need more of it if we’re going to move from encouraging signals to actionable evidence – and we need it on a larger scale.

In the US, the American Heart Association and the Rockefeller Foundation are taking a step in the right direction by spearheading a $250 million “Food Is Medicine Initiative” to gather the empirical evidence needed to more deeply integrate nutrition into the healthcare system and make sure people everywhere can experience the benefits of these programmes.

We’re also seeing leading academic institutions, like Tufts University, accelerate their efforts and create new, dedicated programmes to address the glaring nutrition gap in the US healthcare system. Tufts’ new Food is Medicine Institute will advance research and patient care, bringing together diverse stakeholders to build evidence and catalyze change around the role food can and should play in improving health for all.

2. Tools

While technology allows doctors to prescribe a diet – and patients to fill that prescription with nutritious food – we need to make the process even easier. And the private sector should lead the way.

That’s why we’ve built the technology infrastructure to scale food as medicine programmes – from new tools like category-specific grocery stipends to help people pay for the food that’s right for them, to virtual storefronts that act like online food pharmacies.

But we can’t do it alone. More innovative companies need to come to the table and either build new tools or use the technology they already have to help integrate food into the healthcare system.

3. Access

Too often, people and communities who would benefit significantly from nutritious food either don’t have access to it or can’t afford it.

That’s why we’ve seen the US government move to modernize federal nutrition programmes like SNAP by bringing it online. After years of working with the US Department of Agriculture and grocers on this effort, in 2023, Instacart became the first online grocery marketplace to allow customers to pay with SNAP benefits in all 50 states and Washington, DC. With Instacart, nearly 95% of US households enrolled in SNAP can buy groceries online and have them delivered right to their homes.

City leaders have stepped up, too. The mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, for example, is using the power of grocery delivery to help residents who live in food deserts access nutritious food. Trenton, New Jersey, is installing temperature-controlled lockers to do the same thing. Jacksonville, Florida, uses public transit services to help residents living in food deserts access grocery stores.

4. Collaboration

Programmes like these show how different organizations, from providers and payers to non-profits, governments and companies, can work together to make food and nutrition programmes more accessible and affordable. But to make more progress, we need even more cross-sector collaboration.

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More companies must go beyond flash-in-the-pan corporate social responsibility programmes and build sustainable businesses and effective public-private partnerships to address food and nutrition challenges. More academic and research institutions need to help prove that food as medicine programmes work. More insurers and governments need to follow that research and experiment with innovative programmes. More physicians and nonprofits need to lend their expertise to the cause.

We all need to break down the traditional barriers between nutrition and healthcare and find new ways to work together.

Right now, food as medicine is having a moment. But for that moment to turn into a global movement, we need to do more to make sure everyone, everywhere, has access to nutritious food and the tools to support their health through nutrition. That’s how we’ll make food the medicine of the future – and help more people worldwide lead healthier lives.

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