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New Bill Would Make Massachusetts the First State in the Nation to Comprehensively Test “Food As Medicine”

On Monday, October 21, Senator Julian Cyr and Representative Denise Garlick moved to make Massachusetts the first state in the country to comprehensively test the impact of nutrition interventions in health care. The new legislation would establish a Food and Health Pilot Program that connects Medicaid-eligible individuals with diet-related health conditions to one of three nutrition resources, with the expectation that health outcomes will improve and cost of care will decrease.[1] The Pilot is a response to rising rates of diet-related chronic disease and health care costs in Massachusetts, where nearly $1.9 billion in avoidable health care costs is attributable to food insecurity per year.

While the interventions to be tested – medically-tailored meals, medically-tailored grocery bags, and vouchers or prescriptions for nutritious food like fruits and vegetables – have demonstrated significant positive impact on health and cost in research studies conducted across the country, the Massachusetts Food and Health Pilot will be the first in the nation to use a multi-intervention approach to connect individuals to the food they need. Thus, someone with a very complex illness might receive a medically-tailored meal while someone else with a different health profile would be given a prescription for fruits and veggies.

In addition to filling a critical gap in research on nutrition and health, the Food and Health Pilot will simultaneously expand access to sorely-needed services in areas of the state where they don’t exist. “From speaking to researchers across the country, we know that a multi-tiered study is the next frontier when it comes to testing the use of food as medicine,” said Robert Greenwald, a Clinical Professor of Law and the Faculty Director of the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation of Harvard Law School. “This pilot will help us see what it means to respond to the entire spectrum of need for nutrition services, from prevention to treatment. And,” he added, “if the research that we’ve seen so far bears out, the state should save money doing it.”

Researchers from Greenwald’s team at Harvard recently identified 26 cities and towns across the state where the need for medically-tailored nutrition services is particularly high, but access is limited. In partnership with the Boston-based nonprofit Community Servings, which delivers medically-tailored meals in Massachusetts, they developed a Massachusetts Food is Medicine State Plan to address the gaps in access. A multi-tiered research pilot is a key component of the State Plan, which has been hailed by Senator Cyr as a “blueprint to equip our health care system to identify and respond to food insecurity.”

For Senator Cyr and Representative Garlick, establishing the Food and Health Pilot program is a natural expression of the experiences, subject matter expertise, and values they bring to the legislature. Both are outspoken on the subject of comprehensive health care coverage. As Representative Garlick states, “Nutrition is a core component of health. Thus, nutrition should be a core component of health care.”

[1] (HD.4549 / SD.2605)