Robert Kneschke -

Kaiser Permanente zeroes in on food is medicine philosophy

Kaiser Permanente will ramp up its food is medicine programming with the Food Is Medicine Center of Excellence, plus increase research into the programs.

Kaiser Permanente is continuing its charge pioneering healthcare’s food is medicine philosophy by launching its own Food Is Medicine Center of Excellence, the health system recently announced.

The Center of Excellence will focus on increasing various food is medicine interventions, ranging from produce prescriptions to medically tailored meals, while also supporting research and cross-sector collaboration to foster whole-person and patient-centered care.

“Kaiser Permanente’s focus on whole-person care allows us to embrace the spectrum of interventions, resources and innovations that are available to fight this widespread and deadly category of disease,” Nancy Gin, MD, FACP, executive vice president of Quality and chief quality officer for The Permanente Federation, stated publicly. “Our vision is to ensure that our members can access, afford and eat nutritious foods in times of need and beyond.”

The food is medicine philosophy states that improving access to diet and nutrition services, plus improving food security, will have a positive impact on patient health and well-being. Food is medicine is particularly important for managing diet-related illnesses, such as diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension, which Kaiser said count among the leading causes of death in the United States.

As healthcare has increasingly embraced patient-centered care models and answered calls to uncover and address social determinants of health, food is medicine programs have become more prominent.

This latest move from Kaiser Permanente seeks to further food is medicine accessibility and increase the evidence base around the practice.

Specifically, the Food Is Medicine Center of Excellence will increase patient access to different food is medicine programs, plus increase clinical services, research, education, and community engagement, the health system said in a press release.

Efforts will include better patient and member screening for food insecurity and nutrition status, allowing healthcare providers and other stakeholders to refer patients to key resources.

The Food Is Medicine Center of Excellence will also host more clinical nutrition training for healthcare professionals, including by developing medical curricula and opening nutrition fellowships.

Furthermore, the Center of Excellence will create more scalable approaches to food is medicine, including access to medically tailored meals and produce prescription programs.

As a complement, the Food Is Medicine Center of Excellence plans to serve as a research hub to establish best practices and results for various food is medicine approaches. This will help other stakeholders nationwide adopt similar approaches, Kaiser Permanente indicated.

Finally, the Center of Excellence will help establish inroads with community-based organizations (CBOs), including local nonprofits and government agencies, that can help meet patients where they are.

In addition to the Food Is Medicine Center of Excellence, Kaiser Permanente unveiled $2 million it will commit to support the Share Our Strength Organization. The funding will support enrollment in Summer EBT (electronic benefit transfer), which focuses on connecting kids and families with stable groceries during the summer when they cannot access school meals.

Kaiser Permanente also pointed out its ongoing work bolstering food is medicine, including its participation in the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health in 2022. The event complements ongoing work from the US Department of Health and Human Services in addressing food and nutrition security.

“There is a growing appetite for treating food as medicine and investing in innovative interventions that will improve our nation’s diet. At HHS, we refer to this as ‘never going mild.’ It’s a shared commitment to embrace bold solutions and never settle for the status quo,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in the press release. “The Biden-Harris administration will continue to raise public awareness that food is medicine to ensure every American ultimately has access to healthy food.”

During the Conference, the health system committed $50 million to lead its peers in healthcare in advancing the good is medicine philosophy. Kaiser said the Center of Excellence is a part of those commitments.

“Health care organizations have an important role in advancing the uptake of Food Is Medicine programs that increase consumption of healthy food, particularly among vulnerable populations most affected by diet-related illnesses,” Bechara Choucair, MD, senior vice president and chief health officer at Kaiser Permanente, said in the press release. “By aligning the vast food and nutrition resources at Kaiser Permanente, we can deliver the highest standard of Food Is Medicine programs to our members and help lead the industry in adopting these programs in communities across the nation.”

Nascent data confirms that food is medicine is an effective mode of chronic disease management. In 2023, researchers reported that produce prescription programs increased patient intake of nutrient-rich foods, which may have bolstered clinical outcomes like reduced hbA1C and hypertension.

In 2022, a separate study showed that medically tailored meals, also considered part of the food is medicine philosophy, had a business case. According to the study, medically tailored meals have the potential to cut $13.6 billion in payer costs and avert some 1.6 million hospitalizations.

Although many of these leading food is medicine interventions have up-front costs, the early data show that they can yield a return on investment (ROI) both in terms of downstream cost savings and improved patient outcomes.

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