Initial research outlines opportunities to increase access to healthy foods during hunger & Covid-19 crises.
Today the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation of Harvard Law School (CHLPI) announced the launch of Mainstreaming Produce Prescription (Rx) Programs, a new initiative to increase access to nutritious food and improve health outcomes for people with diet-related diseases.
With support from The Rockefeller Foundation, CHLPI will develop a national strategy to scale up Produce Rx programs within the United States’ health care and food systems. Along with today’s announcement, CHLPI released initial research, entitled Produce Prescriptions: a U.S. Policy Scan, that outlines which national and state-level laws and policies may support or hinder the expansion of Produce Rx programs.
Produce Rx programs enable health care providers to distribute vouchers for free or discounted produce to patients living with, or at risk of, diet-related health conditions such as diabetes or hypertension. Mounting evidence indicates that Produce Rx programs can improve health outcomes for individuals who are lower-income and/or living with diet-related disease, by promoting access to healthy foods and reducing the financial burden of maintaining a healthy diet. The current pandemic starkly demonstrates the importance of nutritious diets: it is estimated that 76 percent of deaths from Covid-19 are among individuals with an underlying condition, many of which are diet-related. Despite growing evidence for the effectiveness of Produce Rx, access to these programs remains limited.
“It’s time for our health care system to recognize Produce Rx interventions as both effective and critical forms of care by making them more readily available to patients who need them,” said Robert Greenwald, Faculty Director of CHLPI. “The unprecedented pandemic and economic crisis underscore this aim. Now more than ever, we need to promote access to services that can help manage chronic conditions that are placing so many Americans at increased risk from Covid-19, and we need people to have access to healthy food.”
“Produce Rx programs have been around for more than a decade now, and the results have generated significant interest among providers, payers, government officials, and patients alike,” explained Emily Broad Leib, Faculty Director of Harvard’s Food Law and Policy Clinic and Deputy Director of CHLPI. “Yet most of these programs are still funded through small private, local, or state grants that are narrowly targeted or time-limited. Through our initiative, we’re looking at current law and policy and gathering input from a wide range of stakeholders, to identify the best way to embed Produce Rx programs into our existing health care and food systems infrastructure in a more systemic way.”
The Mainstreaming Produce Rx Programs initiative launches at a time of heightened national attention to chronic illnesses, including diet-related diseases, and food access. Diet-related diseases continue to put people at a higher risk of severe Covid-19 symptoms, and the economic impacts of the pandemic have exacerbated rates of food insecurity. According to recent data, around 1 in 4 adults are currently food insecure; this number goes up to 32 percent for adults with children. While not a direct solution to the pandemic, CHLPI’s team notes that Produce Rx Programs can help prevent and mitigate the harmful effects of such public health emergencies and reduce the burden on overstretched hospitals and health care providers.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has reaffirmed the need for flexibilities in our health care, food, and public health systems,” said Katie Garfield, Clinical Instructor for CHLPI. “With the Mainstreaming Produce Rx Programs initiative, we have an opportunity to build innovative policies that better connect these systems, making them stronger and more resilient now and long after the pandemic is over.”
“Covid-19 has shown that fundamentally, food is medicine, and equitable access to healthy and protective diets is a matter of life or death for many Americans,” said Roy Steiner, Senior Vice President for the Food Initiative at The Rockefeller Foundation. “Expanding Produce Rx programs and integrating them into our existing health and food policies are critical steps to build a more nourishing and resilient U.S. food system.”
The initial research released today, titled Produce Prescriptions: a U.S. Policy Scan, provides an overview of opportunities and challenges for scaling up Produce Rx in existing health care and food access programs like Medicaid, Medicare, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP). CHLPI plans to release a broader National Produce Prescription Policy Strategy Report in 2021 to provide a roadmap for action on the issue.