The future of medicine is becoming more and more about food and nutrition.
Today, your health provider asks what medications you take, whether you smoke or drink alcohol and how much you exercise. Tomorrow, your doctor’s first questions are likely to be what you eat and whether you have easy, daily access to fresh fruit and vegetables.
The American Food Equity Conference identified programs that will help ease the food insecurity plaguing some of Buffalo’s low-income areas. But they need money to succeed.
That’s because eating healthy is increasingly viewed as a way to prevent and treat conditions such as diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease that are directly linked to poor nutrition.
“There are a lot of conversations happening that will help create change,” said Broderick Cason, community engagement manager at Univera Healthcare. “We are all doing the same kind of work for the same reason, but we are working collectively, not in silos, and that’s a good thing.”
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That was the message delivered and explored at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus’s second annual Food as Medicine Symposium held Thursday at the University at Buffalo’s Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences.
“I’m designing this effort to move beyond words and to create a platform for long-term investment in East Buffalo projects that will improve food access, and we are prepared to meet that goal,” organizer Kevin Gaughan said.
The daylong symposium brought nutrition experts, dietitians, health providers and food access advocates together around the growing movement to prescribe nutritious food as medicine to fight disease, reverse poor health outcomes and save lives – especially in food-challenged areas such as Buffalo’s East Side.
Food insecurity and East Buffalo have been a growing topic of concern, discussion and action since the May 14 racist mass shooting that killed 10 Black people in the Tops Market on Jefferson Avenue, which the accused shooter reportedly targeted because it is the main source of healthy food for the predominantly Black neighborhood.
Institutions on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, including UB’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Science, are already working to implement food as medicine interventions to treat patients, said Beth Machnica, director of the medical campus’ Department of Health and Well-being.
Besides projects such as its healthy schools, workplaces, corner stores and farm-to-hospital programs, the medical campus just received a grant from Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield to provide medically tailored meals to patients of Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center and Kaleida Health in the neighborhoods stricken by food apartheid, Machnica said.
“Much of a person’s health is defined by their neighborhood, so we need to build a bridge to those neighborhoods” to bring nutritional food to where it is needed most, Machnica said.
Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of policy at the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, said the recent White House Summit on Nutrition and Health “puts us at a tipping point” in solving hunger and poor nutrition.
Two previous White House summits on nutrition, in 1941 and 1969, resulted in enormous changes, he said. The first focused on vitamin deficiencies, which were rampant at the time and led to vitamin-enriched flour, Recommended Daily Allowances and nutrition information on food packaging. The second focused on hunger and malnutrition and led to reforms that provided food stamps for millions more families and school lunches for millions more children.
This year’s summit addressed today’s biggest problem, “food insecurity, racial disparities and an epidemic of diet-related diseases that were not present 100 years ago,” Mozaffarian said.
“We are at a historic moment, literally a once-in-a-lifetime event,” he said. “Food is the number-one cause of poor health. The U.S. has 500,000 deaths a year caused by poor diet, more than 1,000 a day. That is a travesty that we can address. Our health care system has to start thinking about food.”
Mozaffarian said health providers will need to start prescribing “protective foods,” including fresh produce, nuts, fish, plant oils, whole grains, beans and yogurt, and discouraging harmful foods, mainly starch, sugar and salt, as well as highly processed food.
Pediatric residents with the University at Buffalo medical school scrapped “Timbit Tuesdays” in favor of “Fresh Fruit Fridays.” Evergreen Health opened a more nutritious market in its staff lounge two years ago, started a “walk the stairs” effort last month, and in April will launch a wellness passport that gives workers a $20 gift card for reaching healthy benchmarks.
Among the recommendations Tufts made in its report to the White House post-summit were training more registered dietitians, calling for health providers to cover medically tailored meals, groceries and “produce prescriptions” to improve patient outcomes. Tufts also called for creating universal screening for food security in hospital and health care settings, called for encouraging states to test food intervention programs and called on medical schools to integrate food as medicine into their health care training.
Implementing such programs would save $13 billion in the first year, over $10 billion of that for diabetes treatments alone, he said.
He said nutrition security is just as important as food security – meaning that SNAP benefits and other programs should offer incentives for healthy food purchases and disincentives for harmful foods like sugary soft drinks and processed frozen meals.
He predicted the future holds a new National Institutes of Nutrition to accompany the National Institutes of Health, established dietary guidelines for people with food-related ailments and increased investment in businesses and entrepreneurs who produce innovations and solutions to nutrition insecurity and public health.
In recent years, and especially since May 14, Buffalo has been home to many such efforts, including some that were spotlighted at Wednesday’s American Food Equity Conference. Like Cason, Allison DeHonney of Urban Fruits and Veggies found herself at back-to-back food conferences this week. At the first, she presented her urban farming operation to potential investors. At the second, she moderated a panel on “Food as Medicine and Social Determinants of Health.”
The American Food Equity Conference, organized in response to the May 14 racist massacre, will bring national experts and local project leaders together to address the “grocery gap” in Buffalo.
Experts believe the Food as Medicine movement is here to stay. Doctors will soon be prescribing nutritional solutions, housing modifications such as mold abatement and even stress-reduction therapies such as massage and meditation that will be covered by insurance once providers like Highmark and Univera – who were also in the room – have evidence-based data to justify paying for them.
Hundreds of people who attended, including DeHonney, are working on just that.