New research from Tufts University’s Friedman School highlights the significant benefits of producing prescription programs. These initiatives, aiding those with food insecurity or diet-related illnesses, increase nutrient-rich food consumption, reduce food insecurity, and improve health indicators. Participants reported better health, with clinical biomarkers confirming improvements, especially in individuals with uncontrolled diabetes, obesity, or stage 2 hypertension. The study, encompassing diverse programs in 12 US states, emphasizes the need for broader implementation. Food Is Medicine programs demonstrate the potential to enhance public health while offering substantial returns on investment.
Recent research has unveiled the positive impact of produce prescription programs on individuals’ dietary choices and overall health outcomes, marking a significant stride towards healthier living.
In a newly conducted study by Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, it was discovered that producing prescription programs can substantially boost the consumption of nutrient-rich foods while concurrently alleviating food insecurity and improving clinical metrics such as hbA1C levels and hypertension.
Senior study author, Fang Fang Zhang, a renowned nutritional epidemiologist and Neely Family Professor at the Friedman School, expressed enthusiasm about the findings, stating, “We were thrilled with the results, which demonstrated that participants who engage in these programs tend to consume greater quantities of fruits and vegetables, resulting in meaningful health improvements. Larger-scale implementation of these programs is warranted, especially for lower-income adults dealing with obesity, diabetes, or hypertension.”
Produce prescription programs are initiatives in which healthcare institutions subsidize nutritious foods for individuals facing food insecurity or diet-related health issues such as heart disease or diabetes. By employing vouchers, debit cards, or loyalty cards, participants gain access to essential foods like fresh fruits and vegetables at no financial burden.
The most recent study involved 1,800 children and 2,000 adults from low-income backgrounds who were at risk of cardiometabolic diseases. Over six years (2014-2020), these participants were enrolled in produce prescription programs operating in 12 different states across the United States.
Typically, patients remained enrolled in these programs for around six months, utilizing vouchers or cards for redemption at selected grocery stores or farmer’s markets. The average cost of coverage was approximately $43 for adult participants and $112 for children.
The research team concluded that these programs effectively addressed food security issues, with the likelihood of food insecurity decreasing by roughly one-third. Additionally, the study observed a daily increase of 0.85 cups of fruit intake and 0.26 cups of vegetable intake.
This enhanced access to nutritious food correlated with improved health outcomes, as reported by the participants themselves. The likelihood of experiencing at least one level of improvement in self-reported health status increased for both children and adults.
These health improvements were also reflected in clinical biomarkers. Patients with diabetes saw a reduction of 0.3 percentage points in hbA1C levels, and those with overweight or obesity experienced a decrease of 0.4 kg/m2 in BMI. Furthermore, individuals with hypertension witnessed a drop in blood pressure, with an average decrease ranging from five to eight millimeters of mercury.
Notably, the study’s comprehensive approach examined a variety of produce prescription programs in 12 different U.S. states, showcasing the effectiveness of Food Is Medicine across a diverse range of patients.
Fang Fang Zhang emphasized the significance of these findings, stating, “Our findings provide crucial new evidence from a diverse array of programs, highlighting the substantial benefits of produce prescription initiatives. This underscores the need for collaborative efforts among clinical practitioners, policymakers, healthcare payers, and providers to implement and expand such programs.”
Despite these promising results, further research is warranted. According to Kurt Hager, the study’s primary author, it is essential for experts to analyze the outcomes when food security programs conclude.
“The future of Food Is Medicine will likely involve pilot programs and expansion efforts accompanied by ongoing evaluations to continually enhance service quality,” explained Hager, who completed this work as a doctoral student at the Friedman School and currently serves as an instructor at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School.
The outlook for Food Is Medicine appears auspicious. In addition to this study, separate research has examined the impact of produce prescription programs on diet-related illnesses, such as obesity. In June 2023, researchers from Mass General Brigham reported that their produce prescription program reduced childhood obesity rates by nearly 50%.
Furthermore, these programs demonstrate a substantial return on investment (ROI). A study from the Tufts Friedman School indicated that Food Is Medicine initiatives have the potential to reduce healthcare spending by approximately $40 billion.
The study also revealed that offering prescription programs to individuals aged 40 to 79 with diabetes or food insecurity could generate a remarkable 260,000 quality-adjusted life years (QALYs), representing years of healthy living.
Health policymakers are also endorsing this concept. In September of the previous year, the White House convened a weeklong conference on hunger, with several events focusing on food as a determinant of social and health factors. This effort led to the release of the National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, which includes initiatives to enhance access to food security programs like SNAP, promote nutrition transparency on packaging, and facilitate medically tailored meal options.