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Launching the Massachusetts Food is Medicine State Plan

“Massachusetts was the first state to have universal health care . . . let’s make this state the first state that everyone living with chronic disease . . . will have access to nutritious healthy food . . .” – David Brown, Community Servings Client

After years of hard work, the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation of Harvard Law School (CHLPI), Community Servings, and nearly 40 Planning Council organizations debuted the Massachusetts Food is Medicine State Plan at the Massachusetts State House on Tuesday June 18, 2019. With the support from legislative sponsors Senator Julian Cyr and Representative Denise Garlick, the event drew over 200 people with a line out the door comprised of government officials, non-profit group members, health care providers, health care payers, public health advocates, food systems practitioners, and academics from across the state. The launch of the State Plan was also highlighted by WBUR, who quickly published a story on the morning’s events.

Source: https://twitter.com/JulianCyr/status/1141006623458189312

The Massachusetts Food is Medicine State Plan initiative brought together hundreds of individuals and organizations, all united by the belief that food is medicine. Research increasingly shows that Food is Medicine interventions—such as medically tailored meals and produce prescription programs—are an effective, low-cost strategy to improve overall health outcomes, decrease utilization of expensive health care services, and enhance quality of life for people living with, or are at risk for, serious diet-related medical conditions. Present at the State Plan Launch were David Brown, a client of Community Servings’ medically tailored meal delivery program, and Max Makowski, a client of FLAVORx’s produce prescription program. Brown and Makowski spoke avidly to the audience about how Food is Medicine services improved their lives and health, reminding us that food and nutrition are crucial for people living with chronic illnesses.

“The most important thing for me was the sense of community and the sense of purpose. Those two things are profoundly altering. It’s great to have healthy food, it’s better to have community connection with the people who are around you.” – Max Makowski, FLAVORx Client

In his remarks, Senator Julian Cyr called attention to the massive, avoidable $1.9 billion in health care spending stemming from food insecurity each year. “Part of the reason Food is Medicine is so important and has so much promise is the potential for not only improving quality of life, access, and getting at food insecurity, but the potential for cost savings as well,” said Cyr. “Because of the State Plan, we have a blueprint now to equip our health care system to identify and respond to food insecurity.”

The State Plan provides a framework for creating a health care system that truly recognizes the critical relationship between food and health and ensures access to nutrition services needed to treat, manage, and even prevent diet-related chronic diseases. Representative Denise Garlick said passionately, “I feel that food is such a ubiquitous part of our day to day life. We have always had the power; we just haven’t utilized our power.”

As the keynote of the event, a panel of experts discussed the origins and next steps for the State Plan. Robert Greenwald, Faculty Director of the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation, conveyed that Massachusetts has always been a leader in health care policy, setting the tone for broader health reforms across the country. “We are making progress but much more work needs to be done,” said Greenwald. “The good news is we now have a State Plan that includes very specific recommendations as to what it’s going to take to create a fully integrated health care system”.

The State Plan Report provides 15 recommendations, known as the Food is Medicine 15. These recommendations outline specific, concrete action items for key stakeholders within the world of nutrition, food, and health. It also establishes a Massachusetts Food is Medicine Coalition and three Task Forces charged with addressing critical barriers and driving broader systems and policy change. Inaugural leaders of each Task Force were present on the panel to discuss their vision for advancing the State Plan.

David Waters, CEO of Community Servings, asserted that, “As people are looking for new innovations, an old innovation has risen to the top, which is food.” He added, “If you want to make an impact on someone’s health outcome, you’d better think about it in a holistic way of what’s going on in that household…if we could also find a way to make sure that an entire household’s nutrition needs are met, that’s going to have the biggest impact.” In the same vein, Dr. Maryanne Bombaugh, President of the Massachusetts Medical Society stated, “Without addressing the social determinants of health, we will never have health equity.” Dr. Bombaugh placed high importance on educating health care professionals on food and nutrition to ensure patients have access to the information and care they need to heal and thrive. Richard Sheward, Director of Innovative Partnerships at Children’s HealthWatch, believed that “the State Plan is a great way of coalescing a diverse array of stakeholders around figuring out what works best” to address nutritional needs within the context of health care in the Commonwealth.

“Nutrition is a core component of health. Thus, nutrition is a core component of health care.” – Representative Denise Garlick

With strong leadership from individuals, organizations, and policymakers committed to achieving the goals of the State Plan, Massachusetts can achieve widespread, sustainable access to Food is Medicine interventions. The time is now for us to come together, take initiative, and continue to drive change so that all Massachusetts residents receive the nutritional services they need to live healthy, happy, and productive lives.