Is it weird to think of food as medicine? Definitely not.
The foods we consume affect our health more than you might think. Some dietary habits increase our risk for disease, while others can help keep disease at bay.
There’s a clear link between poor diets and chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.
In the US, the rate of obesity (which is also a chronic disease) in adults has increased by 12% in the last 20 years.1 Other diet-related diseases are skyrocketing as well.
This adds a tremendous strain to an already taxed healthcare system. Not to mention the costs to the healthcare system, plus Medicare and Medicaid.
And this is completely preventable too.
How can we fix this? Is it even possible to tackle such a monumental problem?
Proper nutrition is one of the main factors in preventing chronic diseases.2 Starting there, and ensuring everyone has access to fresh, healthy food will make a big difference.
Let’s examine the links between food, health, and how community organizations play a role in solving this crisis.
You Are What You Eat – How Food Impacts Our Health
Most cases of chronic disease are preventable. This is because they’re a type of diet, or nutritional, disease.3 These are diseases that are directly linked to your nutrition.
They can result from diets that are high in calories, saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars. Low consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fiber is also part of the problem.
Things like diabetes and heart disease are perfect examples of how the food we eat negatively affects our health. And the consequences are far-reaching.
The increase in these preventable diseases has a huge impact on people’s quality of life. Not to mention the burden on the healthcare system and the economy.
Sadly, chronic diseases are the leading cause of death in the country.4 Approximately 1.7 million Americans die every year from them.5 Some of these deaths could be prevented if more people had the chance to access healthier foods.
When access to affordable healthy foods is low, the rate of chronic diseases increases.6 But, when healthy foods are more convenient and affordable, the rate of disease drops.
The financial costs of these diseases are something that affects everyone in the country, regardless of how rich you are or where you live. Lost economic productivity, higher insurance premiums, higher taxes, and so on.
The money to treat these diseases has to come from somewhere. And a good chunk of it comes out of your pocket.
Chronic Diseases Cause Medicare and Medicaid Costs to Increase
Medicare and Medicaid are the largest federal health insurance programs in the US. Together, they cover some of the healthcare costs for over 100 million Americans who can’t afford private health coverage.7
Older adults and those with disabilities are eligible to be covered by Medicare, while Medicaid is available for lower-income families.
But both of these programs are feeling the effects of diet-related diseases. One-third of people using Medicare are diabetic. Medicare spending on insulin alone rose 840% in just ten years, to $13.3 billion.8
To put that into perspective, that’s only $1 billion short of covering the entire annual cost of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).9
Imagine the long-term benefits of redirecting that money into prevention instead of treatment. Currently, 96 cents out of every dollar for Medicare and 83 cents of every dollar for Medicaid is spent on chronic disease treatment.5
Who’s Going to Foot the Bill?
Because these are government-funded programs, every American taxpayer helps foot the bill. So even if you have private health insurance, and don’t rely on these programs, a portion of your tax dollars and paycheck goes to support them.10
Program costs are increasing, and with that so will the cost to every American citizen.
Lower-income communities are more likely to be food deserts and are at greater risk of developing chronic diseases. These are the very people that rely on these programs. This is one of the reasons why Medicare and Medicaid costs are increasing.
If we can find more ways of increasing food access and equality, we can help stop the problem before it even starts. It should be a wake-up call for all Americans, to understand how food affects our health and the health of the entire country.
Food Prescription Programs – Making Healthy Food Affordable
Chances are, there won’t be only one magic bullet to solve this healthcare crisis. It will take a multi-faceted, holistic approach. We need to examine the root causes of this healthcare crisis and start from there.
Because poor nutrition is one of the main causes of chronic illness, finding ways to increase access to fruits and veggies is a great place to start. One way to tackle food access is through food prescription programs.11
These programs use the healthcare system to help cover the costs of healthy foods. A prescription gives patients access to subsidized fruits and vegetables. And they sometimes include other foods like whole grains.
The patient gets a voucher to buy healthy foods at a grocery store, farmers’ market, or mobile market.
Some hospitals and medical centers even have farmers’ markets on sight. The Anne Arundel Medical Center in Maryland is one such place.12 It makes it even more convenient for patients to access fresh produce using vouchers.
Other hospitals partner with local farmers and community organizations. The idea is to empower individuals to make healthier choices. It also helps to support the local economy and the local food system.
The Benefits of Food Prescription Programs
Most food prescription programs don’t stop there. They also provide ongoing support and things like cooking classes and nutrition education. The South Central NY Fruit & Vegetable Prescription Program is a great example of this.13
Patients report lower BMI and greater consumption of fruits and veggies. They also gain a better understanding of how to prepare healthy meals.14 They’re also better able to manage their illness, which reduces healthcare costs. The proof is in the pudding.
Results like these could potentially reduce healthcare costs significantly for the entire country. It pays off to focus on prevention rather than treatment.
The Role of Mobile Famers’ Markets in Chronic Disease Prevention
When prescription programs are combined with SNAP,15 it helps lower the costs of healthy food even more. Making food more affordable is important. But to maximize their potential these programs need to be combined with convenience.
A mobile farmers’ market offers another unique way to increase food access.
Sara Bernal is a mobile market operator with the Center for Land-Based Research in California. She runs The West Sacramento Urban Farms Mobile Farmers’ Market.16 Sara explains that in some neighborhoods there’s a lack of infrastructure to be able to sell fresh food.
“[The USDA] had identified that corner stores were a lot more prevalent than grocery stores in most inner-city neighborhoods. In some instances, buying the refrigeration units to store produce was prohibitive for the store owner.”Sara Bernal
Where increasing access to refrigeration can help brick and mortar stores, it also opens a door for mobile markets.
One refrigeration unit at a store helps only a small part of a neighborhood access fresh produce.
But, a mobile market truck can be at one end of a neighborhood in the morning, and the opposite end in the afternoon. With the right locations, a mobile market can increase overall food access to a lot more people.
Sara has found other ways for her mobile market to reach the same people that would benefit from prescription programs in her community.
She partners with health clinics that offer cooking classes to diabetics and pre-diabetics. Once the class is over, students can buy fresh ingredients right outside the building.
Sara’s mobile market is a great example of how they can help ease rising healthcare costs and improve lives.
Unique Solutions to a Common Problem
It’s clear how much impact food has on our health. And that impact extends to each one of us by way of insurance premiums, and how much of your paycheck you get to take home. When millions of people are denied the opportunity to eat healthily, we all feel it.
That’s why we have to find inventive ways to make food more affordable and accessible.
Food prescription programs, partnerships, and mobile markets are some methods that work. They may seem like small potatoes to some people. But because the problem is so big, it means tackling the root causes of why we spend so much on healthcare as a nation.
What are some of the other ways we can use food to improve our health? If you’re interested in our programs to help you increase food access in your community, get in touch with us today.
Do you have more questions about starting a mobile market and how it can benefit your community? Start with our information-packed article for beginner mobile market operators.