Consider the sweet potato: packed with nutrients and fiber, pureed into a soup and delivered for free to a cancer patient in Boston who is too weak to cook, uninterested in eating, struggling to maintain her weight. Consider the kale green: grown on an urban farm in an Oakland food desert that asks shoppers to pay only what they can afford. Consider the vitamin-loaded red bell pepper: lightly sautéed by a Tulane University medical student learning in a cooking class how to share the pepper’s nutritional merits with her patients.

The idea of treating food as medicine is central to the current revolution in how the US approaches community health. In recent years, the “Triple Aim” (higher-quality care, with better health outcomes, at a lower cost) has shifted the way many organizations approach healthcare, particularly in low-income communities. There’s a growing recognition of the important role that social determinants of health – factors like economic stability, affordable housing, and nutritious food – play in improving community health outcomes. Government agencies, insurance companies, hospital systems, and human services organizations increasingly understand that diet can be a crucial element to helping manage, and even prevent, diseases, meaning fewer hospital visits and less reliance on medication in a country where treating chronic diseases accounts for 86 percent of healthcare costs.

For example, many community-based organizations that once delivered food to homebound AIDS patients now provide medically tailored meals (MTMs) to a wide range of chronically or critically ill people with complex nutritional needs. Some organizations also deliver meals to patients’ family members and caregivers, having found that sick people sometimes give away the food they receive to hungry family members. Research has shown that feeding one person MTMs costs about $24 per day, while an overnight stay in a hospital costs about $4,000.

NFF’s financing, consulting, and knowledge-sharing help build bridges between healthcare and human services organizations in many areas, including projects focused on food and health over the course of many years. For example:

  • God’s Love We Deliver joined NFF’s Healthy Outcomes Initiative, which explored how community-based human services organizations can partner and integrate with health systems, insurers, and government to propel large-scale improvements in the health of America’s communities.
  • NFF helped the California Food is Medicine Coalition embark on a three-year pilot to deliver MTMs and community-based medical nutrition therapy to chronically ill patients, with guidance about infrastructure, communications, billing, and other factors to determine the full costs of the project and integrate funding streams.
  • NFF assisted Tulane University Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine in developing a plan to scale its culinary and nutrition courses for medical students and community cooking classes to other medical schools across the country. This effort recently earned an implementation grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
  • NFF’s $400,000-bridge loan aided City Slicker Farms, a network growing produce in vacant lots and backyards in West Oakland, CA, in expanding production of fruits and vegetables for low-income, food-insecure residents.
  • NFF included a Meals on Wheels project in Baltimore among projects selected to receive federal Pay for Success funds in 2016.
  • Most recently, NFF committed New Markets Tax Credit allocations and a bridge loan to help Community Servings break ground on a new “Food Campus” to triple its production of MTMs for Boston residents.  

Click here to learn more about NFF’s work in health and here for related reports and resources.