This could have major implications for healthcare across the country.

By Claudia Fisher
Updated May 11, 2018
A Doctor Writing a Prescription
Credit: krisanapong detraphiphat/Getty Images

If you needed a very specific diet to survive, would you be able to get the right foods? Unfortunately, a lot of people don't have the luxury of being selective while food shopping. Low-income constraints mean whatever's most affordable sometimes becomes the only option.

An often overlooked element of healthcare is how patients will actually obtain the foods recommended by their doctors. It's one thing for healthy people to try to maintain a diet with all the right nutrients, but it's a completely different beast to tackle trying to eat properly and follow specific dietary guidelines when you have a chronic illness.

Last Friday, California became the first state to pilot a new program, Food Is Medicine, to treat high-risk, low-income patients with congestive heart failure through a medically-tailored meal service, with the goal of reducing overall medical costs caused by patients not getting the necessary nutrition.

Congestive heart failure requires a diet with less than 1 teaspoon of sodium per day, which can be pretty hard to keep track of in the first place, but also can be hard to stick to if you're limited to inexpensive foods that tend to be processed and high in sodium.

A nonprofit based in Philadelphia called MANNA (Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance) first caught the attention of California legislators, who took notice of the organization's 2013 study showing a sweeping financial trend. Patients who received three meals and a snack a day from MANNA ended up with lower monthly healthcare costs and hospital stays across the board than those of similar Medicaid recipients.

Although the sample size was fairly small (65 MANNA clients were surveyed), the study saw that over 12 months, the sample group's healthcare costs dropped, on average, from $38,937 to $28,183 per month, while the control group's was 55% higher at $41,000. Monthly inpatient costs during this same period dropped for MANNA clients from a mean of $174,320 to $121,777, and was $220,000 for the other group.

In addition to these monetary values, the researchers found that the MANNA group visited hospitals half as often as the control group and, when they they did, they stayed for 37% less time than the control group and were 23% more likely to be discharged from the hospital to their homes rather than to rehab facilities or treatment centers. Emergency room visits between the two groups was the only statistic that remained inconclusive.

The Golden State's new $6 million program will take place over the course of three years and provide meals to 1,000 Medi-Cal (the state's Medicaid program) recipients. According to a press release first announcing the program's approval over the summer, the funding will be spread out to six non-profits in areas around the state: Project Open Hand, Ceres Community Project, Food for Thought, Mama's Kitchen, the Health Trust, and Project Angel Food.

The Food Is Medicine program has exciting and broad implications for healthcare in the United States: If significant enough cuts to Medicaid costs happen and legislators see these services as an opportunity to reduce government spending, similar programs could be implemented and financially supported across the country, making specialized meals more accessible for patients who need them to survive.

Just another reason for Californians, basking in sunshine, to be happy with their state.