White House conference shines desperately needed spotlight on hunger, nutrition and health
By Guest Columnists MATTHEW PIEPER, executive director of Open Hand Atlanta and KEVIN WOODS, president of the Atlanta Medical Association.
After moving to Atlanta in 2020, David, a successful publicist and professor, found himself in financial crisis after the pandemic wreaked havoc on his career. Things spiraled into a full-fledged catastrophe when a rare disease left him temporarily blind. He was diagnosed with ocular rosacea, an inflammation that typically causes redness, burning and blurred vision. Without a social safety net and isolated in his apartment, David turned to Open Hand Atlanta for meals to help navigate his financial and medical crisis. Nearly a year later, he has seen massive improvements in his health and returned to the classroom this fall. Open Hand Atlanta’s nourishing meals contributed in a profound way to his recovery and health today.
When people are severely ill, good nutrition is one of the first things to deteriorate, making recovery and stabilization harder, if not impossible. Open Hand Atlanta, one of the largest community-based providers of medically tailored meals and nutrition services in the U.S., recently reported that one-third of its clients would have no idea where their next meal would come from if it were not for receiving Open Hand meals. David is certainly among those.
For the first time in over 50 years, the White House will host a Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health on Sept. 28. This is a historic opportunity to propel “food is medicine” interventions — bringing food to the forefront in addressing the health crisis plaguing the U.S. The aim is to accelerate progress and drive significant change to end hunger, improve nutrition and physical activity, reduce diet-related disease, and close the disparities around them. The last time a conference of this nature took place, it resulted in sweeping legislation such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); the concept of the program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC); school breakfast and lunch programs; the national approach to creating dietary guidelines; and the nutrition facts label.
The mission is clear — reimagining our nation’s food system to end hunger, improve nutrition, and reduce diet-related chronic diseases. This conference can shine a spotlight on our communities that are vulnerable due to food insecurity, particularly those who are facing chronic health conditions.
The solutions are clear, too.
- Common sense policies, as recommended by the national Food Is Medicine Coalition, should include modernizing Medicare and Medicaid to make medically tailored meals a fully reimbursable benefit for people living with severe and chronic illnesses. Additionally, fully funding and implementing large-scale medically-tailored-meal pilots in the Medicare and Medicaid programs would have far-reaching benefits. Early and reliable access to medically tailored meals helps individuals live healthy and productive lives, produces better overall health outcomes, and reduces health care costs. It is a solution that improves population and individual health, improves the experience of care, and has been proven to reduce costs.
- Expanding research on medically tailored meals has great potential. For example, Open Hand recently began researching the impact of medically tailored meals on women with gestational diabetes and improving outcomes for moms and their babies. Georgia has one of the highest rates of infant mortality in America.
- Finally, identifying food insecurity and malnutrition in clinical settings is an urgent priority. Screening for patient food insecurity and connecting patients to food resources has been strongly supported in official statements by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Diabetes Association, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and AARP.
We face new challenges in our food system that are harming Americans and costing the country hundreds of billions of dollars in preventable health care spending every year. A person’s diet can have life and death consequences and contributes to high rates of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. About 50% of adults in the U.S. adults have diabetes or prediabetes and 75% are overweight or obese. Chronic illnesses and nutrition-sensitive diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and HIV/AIDs are rampant in Georgia.
Many adverse health outcomes find their root in lack of access to good nutrition, which is made worse by racial and socioeconomic inequities. In Georgia, access to medically tailored meals is extremely limited. And that needs to change.
The U.S. is at a critical crossroads in the fight against hunger, nutrition insecurity, and diet-related illness. This is a seminal moment to increase access to medically tailored meals and produce prescription programs, as well as more robust nutrition education for clinicians and appropriate insurance coverage for counseling by registered dieticians.
We implore all those convening at the White House conference this month to be a catalyst to expanding access to these life-saving interventions.
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