A Tuesday hearing at a Senate Agriculture Subcommittee illustrated a bipartisan priority to incorporate the concept of “food as medicine” into the upcoming farm bill.

Witnesses who testified at the hearing said programs that recognize the role of nutrition can play in medical treatment and prevention can be transformative for the health of individuals and families receiving food as well as lowering health care costs.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who chairs the subcommittee on food and nutrition, specialty crops, organics and research, said nearly $1 out of every $3 in the federal budget now goes toward health care spending, so encouraging healthier foods will be a top priority for him in the 2023 farm bill.

“Our dietary guidelines tell us that 50% of the food we should eat should be fruits and vegetables, but less than 10% of our farm bill subsidies currently go there,” Booker noted.

The last farm bill included annual funding over five years increasing from $45 million to $56 million for the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP) and its competitive grant programs which develop and evaluate projects to increase the purchase of fruits and vegetables. GusNIP grants provide incentives at the point of purchase among income-eligible consumers participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The GusNIP Produce Prescription Program also looks at the improvement of dietary health through increased consumption of fruits and vegetables and the impact on lowering food insecurity and reduction in health care use and costs associated with it.

Leah Penniman, founding co-executive director of Soul Fire Farm in Petersburg, New York, said in speaking with the farmers who participate in the GusNIP program, it supports many Black and other minority farmers and helps keep small and mid-size regional farms afloat. Penniman also cited a recent National Young Farmers Coalition survey that said 83% of young farmers are motivated by social concerns — such as ending hunger — as one of the primary reasons they want to farm.

“There’s a huge opportunity to connect these federal programs with these up-and-coming young farmers who are socially motivated and who want to make a difference in their communities,” she said. “People need to be in communities that have a culture of health, and these farmers are in a community with folks who need this food and are ready to engage in that way.”

The Kentucky-based Community Farm Alliance launched Kentucky Double Dollars in 2014 to encourage the doubling of SNAP funds for healthy food purchases for not only Kentucky-grown fruits and vegetables but also meat, eggs and dairy. In 2019 they launched Fresh RX for Mothers on Medicaid, which helps mothers-to-be who are enrolled in Medicaid eat more locally grown fruits and vegetables through a weekly produce prescription.

Interested in more coverage and insights? Receive a free month of Agri-Pulse!  

Martin Richards, CFA's executive director, said USDA’s GusNip grant program has been critical for the Alliance. However, with only $38.7 million available this year, just eight GusNIP projects were funded, and Kentucky was not on the list. He encouraged lawmakers to use the next farm bill to grow the GusNip program and reduce the matching funding requirements.

Building on the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health held in September, a key component of a national strategy rolled out at the event is a call to continue researching and scaling up food as medicine programs, such as funding pilot programs to integrate medically tailored meals and nutrition counseling into Medicare and Medicaid programs. At Tuesday's hearing, Booker also suggested Congress should create a new USDA specialty crop food box program to provide locally-sourced fruits and vegetables to Medicaid participants.

Committee member and physician Roger Marshall, R-Kan., recently told Agri-Pulse Newsmakers the concept of food as medicine has “unlimited potential.” At the hearing, he shared a 2019 study detailing how medically tailored meal programs lowered readmission rates of Medicare recipients. Marshall says he plans to introduce legislation with Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., to implement a larger-scale pilot program to evaluate the cost savings and health benefits of Medicare recipients who are sent home from hospital stays with medically tailored meals.

For more news, visit www.Agri-Pulse.com