Food as Medicine Is Not a Silver Bullet

Healthcare providers and policymakers are rallying around food as medicine solutions, but improving health outcomes isn't quite so simple.

A red apple with syringes sticking out of it.
Millions of Americans don’t even have a baseline health and wellness plan established. So how can they confidently take steps to improve their health if they don’t know what they need to be doing? The solution isn’t solely food as medicine. It’s food as engagement. Sara Bakhshi via Unsplash

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician considered the father of medicine, echoed those words centuries ago. Today, that philosophy is the foundation of the growing food as medicine movement. A recent analysis from ATI Advisory finds that nearly one-quarter of the entire Medicare Advantage market has begun offering food as a supplemental benefit in 2024. That’s up from just 2 percent of plans offering food as a benefit five years ago. Health plans, policymakers and business leaders are rallying behind building food-as-medicine solutions for two primary reasons: first, to improve Americans’ health and second, to decrease skyrocketing healthcare costs—particularly among Americans with chronic diet-related conditions. 

Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter

By clicking submit, you agree to our <a rel="noreferrer" href="http://observermedia.com/terms">terms of service</a> and acknowledge we may use your information to send you emails, product samples, and promotions on this website and other properties. You can opt out anytime.

See all of our newsletters

Both are admirable reasons to utilize food as medicine. Chronic diet-related conditions are on the rise and treatment for such conditions already makes up 90 percent of the nation’s $4.1 trillion in annual healthcare spend, making reversing these chronic conditions a valuable long-term investment for health plans. I’ve heard many in the industry dub food as medicine the “future” of healthcare. I’ve even heard many anecdotally get so excited about this movement, that they believe it can make an immediate impact—like a silver bullet. Investing in food as medicine to fix health problems just isn’t that simple, though. 

I’ll be the first to tell you that food as medicine is great—but it’s not a magic, silver bullet able to fix the health problems that afflict millions across the country. Especially when it comes to creating scalable solutions that address the health needs of Americans. Food as medicine isn’t groundbreaking or even disruptive. Our friend Hippocrates was tuned into this concept thousands of years ago. My company, FarmboxRx, is rooted in food as medicine, so I realize I may sound like I’m contradicting myself. But when it comes to this concept, we’ve learned through our work that giving people healthy food doesn’t always equate to better health outcomes. Think about it.

If someone begins to receive healthy food as part of a larger food-as-medicine initiative, there’s a good chance recipients may not know how to cook it, store it or understand why it’s important to their health. And if they don’t understand its importance or how to use it, it’s not going to improve their health. Providing medically appropriate foods is a great start, but will not alone reduce care costs, change health outcomes and address the whole person’s health needs. 

A 2020 study found that only 8 percent of Americans undergo routine, preventive screenings. Getting preventive care services like routine well-visits, mammograms, blood sugar screenings and blood pressure readings helps reduce the risk of diseases, disabilities and death. But for a variety of reasons, many people don’t get the preventive care they need. Barriers include lack of awareness about recommended preventive services, cost, social barriers or not having a primary care provider.

This means millions don’t even have a baseline health and wellness plan established. So how in the world could they confidently take steps to improve their health if they don’t know what they need to be doing?

The solution isn’t solely food as medicine. It’s food as engagement.

Engaging and teaching people about the importance of preventive care and additional supplemental benefits available to them, such as transportation to a doctor’s visit, equips them with the tools to take better care of themselves, thus lowering healthcare costs across the nation. Food can effectively incentivize—and confidently inspire—a member to engage in their healthcare quality outcomes and increase their overall health literacy. 

Our work with New Mexico-based partner, Molina Healthcare, led to a 30 percent improvement in their overall member participation thanks to FarmboxRx food as engagement initiatives. FarmboxRx is proud to partner with health plans across America to provide healthy food and culturally and linguistically relevant educational resources that are not only informative but also easily comprehensible—ensuring that everyone, regardless of their literacy level or primary language, can understand and benefit from the content. Food as medicine is great. But food as engagement is the future.

Food as Medicine Is Not a Silver Bullet