Hippocrates, hailed as the father of modern medicine, is credited as being the first to propose “food as medicine and medicine as food.” More than 2,500 years later, Geisinger Health System has introduced a literal translation of those prophetic words with the launch of its Fresh Food Pharmacy, a new program that offers food insecure, diabetic patients in Shamokin, Pa., prescriptions for free foods aimed at keeping their disease under control, according to a press release.
“Diabetes, as well as other diet-related illnesses, are a serious issue in low-income communities,” explained Andrea Feinberg, MD, program champion for the Fresh Food Pharmacy and an internal medicine physician who specializes in pulmonary and critical care.
Thanks to the generous support of the Degenstein Foundation and Pennsylvania-based Weis Markets, free groceries and meal plans are provided to diabetic patients enrolled in the program.
The American Diabetes Association recommends diabetics eat vegetables, fruit and lean proteins, and choose whole-grain foods over those made with refined grains or flours, the press release notes. The organization also recommends avoiding excess salt, high calorie snack foods and foods high in saturated or trans fats.
Following those guidelines, Feinberg noted, can be a challenge for low-income patients because the fresh and nutrient-dense foods that can reverse or slow the disease’s progression are difficult to afford.
“When you’re on a tight budget, you’ll eat whatever food is filling and cheap. Unfortunately, that food tends to provide a nutritional void. The clinic’s patients often experience not just temporary hunger, but food insecurity—the enormous physical and psychological impact of not knowing where your next meal comes from. That can have huge, long-term health consequences. If you’re poor, your risk of disease is higher. Your risk of dying is higher. We’re trying to close the food gap when it comes to social inequality.”
The Fresh Food Pharmacy is stocked with items consistent with American Diabetes Association guidelines. The Fresh Food Pharmacy and the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, Harrisburg, will be partnering to provide weekly grocery bags filled with fresh produce, lean proteins and healthier sugars. Because clients might not be familiar with some of the foods, recipes, menus and regular phone calls from a health manager are provided.
Additionally, case managers, physicians and pharmacists are closely involved to assist these patients with education and support while monitoring their condition and their changing medication needs. Free diabetes wellness classes, dietary consultation and workshops are also provided to teach healthy eating habits and incentives are being worked into the program to encourage participation.
The Fresh Food Pharmacy program was purposely piloted in Shamokin where, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent data, more than 20 percent of residents live below the poverty line. According to the 2015 Geisinger Shamokin Area Hospital Community Health Needs Assessment, 12 percent of Shamokinresidents over the age of 20 have diabetes. Also, about one in three Shamokin residents is considered food insecure.
“Nearly 50% of Shamokin residents are predisposed to diabetes, mostly because of obesity, placing Shamokin at a higher rate than regional, state and national averages,” said Houssam Abdul-Al, MD, the primary care physician treating patients in the program. “If we really want to control diabetes, we need to remove obstacles for our patients. And providing free, healthy food is a lot less than the cost of treating complications from diabetes, including cardiovascular disease, nerve and foot damage, eye problems, kidney disease.”
Although the program is in its early stages, according to registered dietitian Anna Ziegler, they’re already seeing results.
“One patient told me her blood sugars have already improved based on the nutrition instruction provided, so much so that she was already able to reduce her insulin levels,” Ziegler said. “It doesn’t take long to see results with daily blood glucose levels. And our clients are also relieved that their food dollars are stretching much farther now.”
The overall benefits of the program, Andrea Feinberg stressed, are multi-layered and far-reaching.
“We know that eating habits formed by food insecurity are adopted by the entire family. And because family members often have the same inherited risk factors, those who do not currently have a diabetes diagnosis can benefit from the healthier foods their relatives bring home from the free pantry. Our hope is that the Fresh Food Pharmacy enables parents to model healthy eating habits for their children.”
And healthy food is good for everyone, she said.
“Eating correctly for diabetes means fresh fruit and vegetables, lean proteins, complex carbohydrates. These very same foods prevent heart disease. They’re anti-cancer. This is about creating a healthy community for our existing patients and for generations to come.”