Written by Julia Hesse-Fong (’23), a first-year student in the Agriculture Food and Environment Program.
From start to end of the Food is Medicine congressional roundtable, the room was full of energy.
One reason for the excitement was that this was one of the first times many students and guests had attended an in-person campus event. Not to mention, we were all excited to hear from the congressional representatives influencing federal food and nutrition policy and from the leaders who were implementing Food is Medicine programs at Boston organizations.
On Friday, March 4, 2022 Representatives Jim McGovern (D-MA), Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA), and their offices visited the Friedman school to speak with experts in food is medicine. Represented in the discussion were brilliant minds from the Friedman School, Center For Health Law and Policy Innovation (CHLPI) at Harvard, Community Care Cooperative, Greater Boston Food Bank, Hunger to Health Collaborative, Mass Law Reform Institute, and Project Bread. At the invitation of the Representatives, Friedman students Sylara Marie Cruz, Mengxi Du, Julia Hesse-Fong, Kurt Hager, Meghan O'Hearn, Lu Wang, and Hannah Weisman attended and participated in discussion.
As a Friedman student, the knowledge that food systems are incredibly entangled with other systems and infrastructure lies at the core of my studies. So, I was thrilled to hear about the scope of the work that the congressional committee is doing to address food and nutrition security in the US. The committee has not only hosted hearings on clearly related topics like food is medicine, but also topics like technology, which are less obviously related to nutrition. The committee has also met with a variety of high-level representatives—from Department of Energy to the Department of Transportation—to discuss how each Department could contribute to achieving food and nutrition security. Improving nutrition insecurity requires fighting hunger and improving food access, and as Erin McAleer from Project Bread put it—it’s not just about food.
This made me wonder: what more can policymakers and organizations do to improve food and nutrition security?
In the rest of the conversation, I kept hearing about two main action areas that need our attention.
The first is building federal support to scale up Food is Medicine interventions at the national level. These interventions can be constructed in concert with core anti-hunger programs like SNAP, and can encompass interventions from produce prescription programs to medically tailored meals. An estimated 6 million Americans are eligible for medically tailored meals.
The second is translating hunger into healthcare. While 38 million Americans are nutrition insecure, over 40% of US adults experience obesityi. Despite the number of Americans suffering from diet-related illness, the National Institute of Health (NIH) spends just 5% of its budget on nutrition researchii. In addition, most doctors aren’t required to spend much time dedicated to nutrition in their medical education, even though a large number of cardiometabolic and cardiovascular diseases can be addressed with better diet. Introducing a nutrition education requirement could translate to medical practitioners better equipped to advise and direct patients to the resources needed to access nutritional health.
Investing in these Food is Medicine initiatives has the potential to prevent 1.1 million hospitalizations and save $39 billion in healthcare spending, according to Tufts researchers at the roundtable.
There is one other action area for all stakeholders in the food and nutrition security movement: cross-sectoral collaboration.
Friedman initiatives like the Federal Nutrition Advisory Coalition and the Food Nutrition Innovation Institute make me optimistic this is happening at Tufts. And after hearing the congressional representatives and the Boston leaders share and express support for each other’s work, I am optimistic that collaboration between government and industry is happening in Massachusetts and beyond.
i. Feeding America. “Facts about hunger in America.”
ii. Federal Nutrition Advisory Coalition. “Advancing Nutrition Science.”
Author Julia Hesse-Fong (’23) is a first-year student in the Agriculture Food and Environment Program. She is interested in food system sustainability, nutrition security and food justice.