The healing power of the ‘Food is Medicine’ movement

Food & Friends delivers medical nutritional therapy to help seriously ill, nutritionally compromised people in underserved communities in the D.C. area.

Economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the issue of food insecurity to the forefront of news coverage, including poignant images of people waiting in miles-long lines at food pantries across the country.

Although jarring, these visuals tell only one part of a nuanced story about food insecurity and nutritional disparities in the United States. For decades, underlying conditions linked to food insecurity have left underserved communities more susceptible to serious illness and death.

Food & Friends is one Washington, D.C., area organization that’s tackling this entrenched issue of illness and food insecurity directly. As the only community-based organization in the D.C. area that prepares nutritionally-tailored, home-delivered meals for people facing life-challenging illnesses, Food & Friends plays a central role in the growing ‘Food is Medicine’ movement — advancing the idea that nutrition can be a vital part of medical treatment — to help its clients feel better, connect them to caring neighbors and empower them to manage their conditions.

“Our mission is to improve the lives and health of people with serious illnesses that limit their ability to provide nourishment for themselves,” said Carrie Stoltzfus, Executive Director at Food & Friends. “That’s bigger than just providing food. Our meal and nutrition services support illness management and improve health outcomes and a client’s quality of life.” 

Nutritional scarcity makes disease risk higher

Nutrition is a strong predictor of well-being and disease prevention. But for those living in “food deserts” — places where access to fresh, healthy food is scarce — a nutritious diet can be prohibitively expensive and hard to maintain. Especially for those living with a serious illness, who may face barriers to shopping and cooking for themselves, even if they are in close proximity to a supermarket.  

When supermarkets that sell fresh food are a long drive away, many people eat from fast-food restaurants or convenience stores out of necessity. Lack of ability to leave the house to obtain healthy meals can present another obstacle to eating nutritiously — for example, people managing illnesses like cancer at home often aren’t able to make it to a food pantry or grocery store. Finally, many people already struggling with income equality are often facing other urgent issues like eviction that put nutrition and healthcare on the back burner. 

Unfortunately, a food-insecure diet can lead to a plethora of health risks. People who lack access to healthy food often consume high levels of saturated fats, sugars, and refined carbohydrates, which can exacerbate the severity of conditions like Type-2 diabetes and may raise the risk of cancer.

Solutions empowered by the ‘Food is Medicine’ movement

Food & Friends has been at the forefront of the Food is Medicine movement for more than three decades. As a leading member of the national Food is Medicine Coalition (FIMC), Food & Friends provides and advocates for complete food and nutrition interventions backed by robust evidence. As a FIMC partner, Food & Friends works to advance public policies that support the provision of medically-tailored meals and serves as a vital partner for health systems by providing for seriously ill patients in their care.

Food & Friends’ unique approach to client care includes Medical Nutrition Therapy (MNT), where registered dietitians directly help clients understand how food impacts their disease and their health. By helping patients eat a healthier diet and putting nutritious food within reach, symptoms of diseases can be ameliorated, limited, or reversed.

“The concept of MNT is more specific than the broader scope of nutrition counseling,” explained Stoltzfus. “It can help patients with the management of disease symptoms, management of side effects of therapies like chemotherapy, stabilization of weight, etc.”

Guided by this philosophy, Food & Friends offers three key services to improve the lives and health of people with HIV/AIDS, cancer, and other serious illnesses that limit their ability to provide nourishment for themselves.

First, the organization prepares and delivers specialized meals and groceries — based on 12 medically tailored meal plans — designed to meet the specific needs of each of its clients. For example, if a person is sick from the side effects of chemotherapy, Food & Friends sends them a meal plan that can help them feel better by reducing nausea and stomach acid. Individuals on the service receive up to 18 home-delivered meals once a week, Monday through Saturday. Each meal plan includes food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, along with liquid nutritional supplements as needed. The Groceries-to-Go program, delivered every other week, includes fresh produce, frozen meats such as fish and poultry, freshly prepared frozen soups and entrees, and pantry items, as well as a recipe booklet.

Food & Friends also provides nutritional counseling and wellness education that enhances each client’s quality of life. Conducting nearly 1,500 nutrition assessments annually, the organization pairs a registered dietitian with every client, giving them the nutritional knowledge they need to continue good practices even after they leave the service. 

Clients like Tanya Smalls, who is battling type 2 diabetes and asthma, attest to the positive impact of Food & Friends Community Dietitians. “It is like [my community dietitian, Becca Kahn] and I have known each other all of our lives, like I may be her grandmother,” Smalls said. “She listens to me and doesn’t rush me through like a number in a case. I have to eat right and I no longer hate what I have to do. I credit Becca for that. She saved my life.” 

Food & Friends creates a strong sense of community for both clients and volunteers that reduces the social isolation that often comes with serious illnesses and provides meaningful opportunities for neighbors to help neighbors in need. For the more than 30% of clients who report they don’t have any family or friends to talk to when they feel lonely, Food & Friends’ staff and volunteers provide a friendly face, an empathetic ear, and a connection to a compassionate community of support.

The work is not only rewarding but effective. 81 percent of clients report improved health while in a Food & Friends program. More than seven in ten said Food & Friends’ services made it easier for them to follow their doctor’s orders – and more than half reported improved blood pressure and fewer illnesses or infections. Medical providers and healthcare professionals anywhere in the D.C. region can refer eligible clients.

Emphasizing the human element

On top of a commitment to community, other core values of Food & Friends include compassion, dignity, diversity, excellence, reliability, and accountability. Part of the organization’s mission involves an empathy-driven approach to client interactions, including in-depth discussions about their lived experiences, their own food traditions, and nutrition education.

“We’re called Food & Friends for a reason,” said Stoltzfus. “Our relationships with our clients are very important to us. We’re doing this because we care deeply about the people we serve and so does the compassionate community of volunteers and donors who make our mission possible.”

Food & Friends’ volunteers comprise a vital part of the organization’s efforts. More than 8,500 volunteers help out annually — completing over 60% of all meal deliveries — and the Washington, D.C. City Paper’s Reader’s Poll has named Food & Friends the “Best Place to Volunteer in D.C.” for four years running. 

The D.C. community has also recognized the significance of the work Food & Friends is doing to empower clients to feel better and manage their illnesses. Christopher J. King, Ph.D., an associate professor and chair of the department of Health Systems Administration at Georgetown University Medical Center, emphasized that collaboration and partnership — across NGOs, governmental organizations, healthcare institutions and more — is critical for helping economically disadvantaged patients recover and thrive.

“The CDC says health equity is achieved when every person has the opportunity to attain his or her full health potential,” King said, “and no one is ‘disadvantaged from achieving this potential because of social position or other socially determined circumstances.’ [To get there,] we have to uncover the root causes of poor health and connect patients with community-based resources that address barriers to healthy living.”

A focus like Food & Friends’ on the human element of health care, noted Karen Dale, market president of AmeriHealth Caritas, District of Columbia, is crucial for the success of programs focused on historically marginalized communities — which often have a distrust of mainstream health care.

”If people are feeling as though the system is not a place where they are welcome, or have a sense of belonging, or can be heard or celebrated, it’s game over,” she said. 

“Ultimately, [partnering with an organization like Food & Friends] is about more than just food. It’s about how we help people get what they need and even more, doing that with compassion.”

 Learn more about how Food & Friends serves the D.C. area and get involved by volunteering your time or donating or referring a patient

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