These types of programs work: Subsidizing fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods under Medicare and Medicaid could prevent millions of cases, as well as deaths from cardiovascular disease, according to a new model. It would prevent hundreds of thousands of diabetes cases as well, and save billions of dollars in health care costs.
Food as medicine doesn’t mean that individual foods can be used to treat individual conditions or diseases, but that a healthy diet can help manage disease, Nguyen notes—the leading risk factor for cardiovascular disease, for example, is poor diet. “With food insecurity, treating someone by giving them food can improve health. For those who are food secure, anyone given a good diet will have improved health management,” she says.
The study team found that subsidizing fruits and vegetables would prevent 1.93 million cardiovascular events, like heart attacks, and 350,000 deaths from the conditions. Subsidizing fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods would prevent 3.28 million cardiovascular events, 620,000 deaths, and 120,000 cases of diabetes. The fruits and vegetables program would save nearly $40 billion in health care costs, and the addition of other healthy foods would save over $100 billion.
While the new model provides a big-picture look at the national effect of such a program, on-the-ground efforts to implement similar interventions are also key to understanding the impact of food subsidies and prescriptions. Such studies are under way or in planning stages: A $6 million study in California is providing medically tailored meals to patients and the 2018 Farm Bill included $25 million in funding for produce prescription pilot studies.
Food prescription and subsidy programs that lower costs, though, can help, and are designed to stop health care problems and costs from ever appearing. “If our social structures aren’t aligned to support people meeting their basic needs to support health, we’ve chosen to pay for it in other ways. And then we have worse health outcomes,” Nguyen says.