Integrating Food and Nutrition into Health Care

healthy foods and stethoscope

The vision of Operation Food Search is that all children and families have the nutrition, food and skills they need to live a healthy life. The reality is 1 in 7 fellow Missourians have difficulty accessing the amount and quality of food they need.ย  For those experiencing food insecurity, there is an increased likelihood of developing or having difficulty managing chronic health conditions due to barriers limiting access to enough healthy food. Food insecurity intersects with other difficult decisions related to basic self-care while facing economic hardship. Often, people are forced to choose between, underutilize or forgo essentials like food, medication, medical care and utilities. Food insecurity and associated trade-offs take a toll on the physical, mental and emotional well-being of adults and children.

The economic burden from managing diet-related chronic conditions and treating associated illness quickly adds up. Food insecurity in Missouri accounts for $1 billion in avoidable healthcare costs. Recognizing the relationship between food, health and cost of care, we can envision ways to break down the silos of food and health care systems. Together, we can create a more unified system that integrates nutrition access as a critical component of health care to prevent, manage and treat diet-related illness.

Operation Food Search is introducing Food is Medicine Missouri (FIMMO), a statewide collaborative to increase awareness that food and nutrition are essential components for overall health, improving health outcomes and lowering health care costs. FIMMO will expand on the growing body of research examining the link between nutrition-based interventions with positive health outcomes and health care cost saving. It is crucial that our work centers the voices and experiences of communities most directly impacted by food insecurity to create systemic change. FIMMO is working to build a movement emphasizing the importance of food and nutrition for overall health in Missouri by bringing together stakeholders like community members and organizations, researchers, public and private health insurers, and health care providers. FIMMO seeks to advance public and institutional policy to bridge the divide between our food and health systems that is impacting every community in Missouri.

The Food is Medicine Missouri approach includes a spectrum of nutrition interventions that offer tailored healthy foods to prevent or address diet-related health conditions, while increasing population- based healthy food access. Through the model program, Fresh Rx, OFS is advancing innovative solutions that improve health care through increasing access to nutritious food, education and support for families. The Fresh Rx program began with the initial pilot, Nourishing Healthy Starts, based on research showing that food insecurity during pregnancy can have long-term impacts on the health of mothers and infants.

Fresh Rx: Nourishing Healthy Starts aimed to address that food insecurity during pregnancy puts mothers at a greater risk of chronic conditions and complications, and their infants at an increased likelihood of being born early and underweight. Participants received fresh, local food, delivered through weekly meal kits, combined with nutrition and cooking education, and supportive case management services. There were very promising results among the 75 babies delivered in the St. Louis region during the 24-month pilot. The highlights included a significant increase in food security among participants, a decreased rate of low birthweight (when compared to Medicaid eligible babies in St. Louis City), a decrease in depressive symptoms among moms, and nearly $200,000 in healthcare cost savings. When provided access to adequate nutrition and supportive services during pregnancy, Fresh Rx showed improved health outcomes for mothers and babies and healthcare cost savings.

Following the successful pilot demonstration of Fresh Rx, the program is now being implemented on a broader scale. Operation Food Search is partnering with the Social Policy Institute at Washington University in St. Louis to launch a randomized control trial with 750 families to test the impact of nutrition interventions and services offered through the Fresh Rx program. The goal is to determine how Medicaid can promote food security and better birth outcomes for all Missouri families. This research is designed to explore innovative and collaborative approaches to best serve families that are struggling with food hardship. Once care providers and researchers have a better understanding of how best to support women and their families experiencing food insecurity, we have the opportunity to be leaders in change. Working with the FIMMO collaborative, OFS aims to advocate for public and institutional policy change to incorporate these models of support as a standard part of care.

Operation Food Search is pleased to announce the launch of a new website to promote Food Is Medicine Missouri as a collaborative movement. FoodIsMedicineMO.org is a hub for current information, best practices, resources and data. This site was created to raise awareness, grow the collaborative and advance ‘Food Is Medicine’ as a policy priority in Missouri. To learn more about the research and vision behind FIMMO, the Fresh Rx approach, and how to join the collaborative, go to FoodIsMedicineMO.org.

–Written by Madison Eacret, OFS coordinator of public policy

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