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White House conference underscores 'food and medicine go hand in hand'

President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington on Wednesday. Photo by Yuri Gripas/UPI | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/a6af04e007b382e409e49c54a1fdc1ea/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington on Wednesday. Photo by Yuri Gripas/UPI | License Photo

WASHINGTON, Sept. 28 (UPI) -- Science has "connected the dots" between a healthy diet and disease prevention and treatment, and it is high time to realize a person's chronic illness can't be managed if they're hungry -- and do more about it.

That's the gist of what several healthcare experts told the historic White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health held Wednesday in Washington

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At the conference, there was considerable focus on the "second pillar" of the Biden administration's national strategy to end hunger in the United States by 2030: prioritizing the role of nutrition and food security in a person's overall health.

This is the first White House conference to address the problem of food insecurity in more than 50 years, aiming to coordinate a national response to eliminate the root causes of a basic problem that affects the health of millions of people in this country.

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In anticipation of the conference, the White House on Tuesday announced a five-pronged national strategy that includes integrating nutrition and health.

At the federal level, this would be done by taking such steps as working with Congress to pilot coverage of medically tailored meals in Medicare; and expanding Medicaid and Medicare enrollees' access to nutrition and obesity counseling.

Partnerships emphasized

The conference speakers also outlined what concrete steps are being taken via public and private sector partnerships to end hunger, improve healthy eating and increase physical activity -- and thus reduce the heavy toll taken by diet-related diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity in the United States.

"Increasing access to affordable, nutritious food is a challenge we are deeply committed to ... and we believe in starting with the science," said Dr. Rajiv J. Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, who moderated a conference panel Wednesday on "food is medicine."

Shah noted that the Rockefeller Foundation was part of the first White House conference on hunger in 1969. It led to pivotal changes, including significant expansion of the National School Lunch Program and the Food Stamp Program, known today as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

RELATED White House conference aims to end hunger, create national strategy

Science has "connected the dots" between diet and disease prevention and treatment, Shah said, "and as a result we've seen data that tells us, including from Tufts University, that a 30% subsidy for fruit and vegetable purchases via Medicare and Medicaid would prevent nearly 2 million cardiovascular disease events and more than 300,000 premature deaths from cardiovascular disease alone."

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Now is time to draw on this knowledge and "emerging understanding" to design and scale "food is medicine" programs, Shah said. "That's what this panel is about."

Shah said that starting in 2023, the Rockefeller Foundation and the American Heart Association, along with their inaugural partner Kroger, plan to mobilize $250 million to build a national "food is medicine" research initiative.

Currently, the collaboration is in discussions with payers and healthcare systems, including Kaiser Permanente, Apple and the Veterans Health Administration, he said.

Everyone required

While this is a good start, "unlocking the power of food as medicine will require all of us," Shah added.

A panelist, Dr. Sachin Jain, president and chief executive officer of SCAN Health Plan, said the plan has long underscored the need "to think beyond just medical care" in order to keep older adults healthy and independent

SCAN, founded in 1977, is a not-for-profit Medicare Advantage plan based in California that aims to help frail seniors stay independent and living in the community.

"Last year, we delivered over 500,000 meals throughout our service areas, recognizing that you can't really address someone's chronic diseases ... if they're hungry," Jain said.

"You can give as many patients insulin or metformin, but if they're eating the wrong things or don't have access to meals, they're going to end up in the hospital."

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Jain said the United States must rethink its healthcare spending and stop focusing on paying for visits and hospitalizations, and instead "start paying for the things that actually keep people healthy -- and we believe meals are a really, really important part of that."

Go hand in hand

Gesturing to the audience, Jain said this is "a room full of people who recognize that food and medicine go hand in hand."

Dr. Kofi Essel, a community pediatrician at Children's National Hospital in Washington, said the families who bring children into the system are screened universally to determine if they are at risk for food insecurity.

Typically, these families are anxious about where their next meal is coming from, and there is a decrease in the quality of food as they limit purchases to items that they know will last and their families will eat, he said.

According to Essel, parents facing food insecurity "buffer" their children by eating less so their children can eat more. When the children, too, are decreasing their food intake, "we know that this is more of an extreme food insecurity," he said.

Also on the panel was Karen Pearl, chief executive officer of God's Love We Deliver.

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The nonprofit organization's volunteers cook and deliver medically tailored meals to the homes of people in the New York City metro area who are living with HIV/AIDS, cancer and other serious illnesses and too sick to shop or cook for themselves.

Serves HIV community

Pearl said the program, which began its work in the HIV community, realized from the start that meaningful treatment began by looking at the whole person and seeing the need to invest in food and nutrition.

"And so from Day 1, we were not only a meal program, but we were a nutrition program that ensured the people who were getting our meals got the right meals for their particular medical circumstances," Pearl said.

At a subsequent conference panel, Dr. Shereef Einahal, Undersecretary of Health for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said bridging the gap between nutrition and health via partnerships is challenging.

He spoke of military veterans and food insecurity, first broadly citing "obvious deficiencies" in the way healthcare providers are trained across the United States on nutrition.

According to Einahal, VA clinics screen for social determinants of health, including food insecurity, and try to connect veterans with meals and transportation.

A new Rideshare program in New England will connect 200,000 veterans with food deliveries over the next year and provide 255,000 rides to veterans who need mental health services, he said.

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