What if instead of prescribing medicine to treat a disease, doctors could prescribe fresh food to help prevent one? Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania is testing their food prescription idea with Fresh Food Pharmacy, a service that currently provides diabetic, food insecure patients with recipes and nutritious fare. It turns out giving away healthy food for free is not only socially beneficial, but could ultimately save the healthcare system a decent amount of money.
The Fresh Food Pharmacy brims with whole grains, fresh produce, lean meats and fish, greens, and low-fat dairy products. Patients aren’t just handed food, but provided a one-on-one meeting with a dietitian, recipes, and instructions on how to make nutritious meals. They receive enough food for five days.
Some people thought handing out free food might rack up a hefty price tag. But diabetes costs are greater than $240 billion a year in the United States. In contrast, Geisinger Health System will pay around $1,000 a year for each diabetes patient in the food pharmacy program. The Geisinger team is tracking hemoglobin A1C levels to help see how much the Fresh Food Pharmacy could save them. CEO David Feinberg estimates each point of decrease in hemoglobin A1C could save them around $8,000, and many of the around 180 patients in the pilot program have seen a drop of three points.
America’s health care system today is often termed a disease care system instead; physician Mitesh Patel of The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania said, “We wait until people get sick and then spend a lot of resources helping them get better.” But he says the Fresh Food Pharmacy offers social and financial incentives to actually help people make a change in their own health.
The Fresh Food Pharmacy has made a huge difference for Type 2 diabetes patient Tom Shicowich. He said he used to stop at Burger King or McDonald’s for dinner, or heat up a frozen meal. Now he cooks meals at home with his girlfriend. He’s lost around 45 pounds. And his A1C level has changed significantly. The threshold for Type 2 diabetes is above 6.5. Shicowich’s A1C level was almost 11 a year ago; today it has plummeted to the high-six range.