Summer 2018

Treating Food as Medicine

A working group on Capitol Hill will look at hunger as a health care issue.

Previous Next

Illustration: Chris Gash

With research showing that a healthy diet is often the best prescription for preventing many chronic illnesses, Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School, went to Capitol Hill in January. He was there to support the launch of a Food Is Medicine Working Group within Congress’s House Hunger Caucus, which will explore policies to alleviate hunger and the burden it places on America’s health and economy.

“We plan to work together with our colleagues to elevate this Food Is Medicine conversation and to promote the need to address hunger as the health issue that it is,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), who organized the group. “My hope for this working group is that we are able to explore our nation’s antihunger safety net to discover ways to make it even better.”

The group will draw on expertise from academics, advocacy groups, and industry to find policies to improve the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, school lunches, and related programs.

“As a cardiologist, I’ve been thinking about food—and how food is missing from the health-care system—for twenty years now,” Mozaffarian told lawmakers. “One in four dollars in the federal budget is spent on health care. One in five dollars in the entire U.S. economy is spent on health care, and that is only going to go up until we address food.”

Mozaffarian said the United States could, for example, provide more nutrition education to physicians and nurses as part of their training and require Medicare and Medicaid to cover the cost of fruit and vegetable prescriptions, written by physicians, to encourage patients to eat more produce.

McGovern cited a paper, released by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, that showed low-income adults who participate in SNAP incur $1,400 less in medical bills each year compared to people who qualify for SNAP but don’t participate—about a 25 percent savings. “These early interventions have incredible potential to reduce hunger, reduce human suffering, and lower health-care costs, ultimately saving us money,” McGovern said. “But more importantly they improve the quality of life for our fellow citizens.”

Top Stories

Is It Time We All Ate Bugs?

Insects are nutritious, delicious, and good for the environment. They might also prove key to helping feed an increasingly hungry planet.

Building a Brighter Food Future

As the Friedman School creates a hub of entrepreneurship, meet the students, faculty, and advisers working to transform the global food system through business thinking.

Hard Work If You Can Get It

Livelihoods programs promise refugees a path to self-reliance, but how much they can truly help remains an open question.

Editor's Picks