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Doctors normally prescribe medicine and now some are prescribing meals


Doctors prescribe medicine. That's a basic part of their job. But some doctors are now also prescribing meals, what they call medically tailored meals that are aimed at treating or managing chronic medical conditions. And as NPR's Allison Aubrey reports, there is new evidence to show how beneficial the meals can be for people with a diet-related illnesses, like diabetes and heart disease, which affects millions of Americans.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: About two years ago, Michelle Pagoni (ph), who's now 58, was hospitalized after she took a bad fall in her home in Castro Valley, Calif.

MICHELLE PAGONI: I fell out of my bed, and I broke my pelvis. And I ended up in the hospital, you know, in rehab.

AUBREY: During her stay, her health care providers realized that her blood sugar was elevated. Already diagnosed with diabetes, the condition was not well controlled. And she told a nurse how she was feeling.

PAGONI: Sluggish - you know, just get tired and not want to do anything.

AUBREY: That's when a nurse at Kaiser Permanente told her that for her condition, food could be a medicine. Eating the right kinds of meals, she was told, could help manage her blood sugar. And the nurse helped sign her up to receive free meals paid for by her health plan. The meals are prepared and delivered by an organization called Project Open Hand in Oakland.

ANA AYALA: I've heated up one of our medically tailored meals.

AUBREY: Ana Ayala is vice president of programs at Project Open Hand, which was founded in the early days of the AIDS epidemic to nourish AIDS patients. Now needs have shifted as diet-related diseases have become so common. The group partnered with the state of California several years back to launch the first statewide medically tailored meal program in the U.S.

AYALA: This is one of our most popular recipes. It is our wellness meal. And it is a beef stroganoff atop a whole wheat rotini.

AUBREY: The group's chef has worked with nutrition professionals to develop meals that are low in refined carbohydrates, high in protein, with plenty of vegetables.

AYALA: Wonderfully vibrant, colorful medley of green beans and broccoli and cauliflower.

AUBREY: This smells wonderful.

AYALA: It does smell wonderful. I agree.

AUBREY: Every week, Project Open Hand packs up thousands of these meals and delivers them to patients around the region, including to the home of Michelle Pagoni. The meals are portioned precisely for weight management.

PAGONI: I do think these meals are helping me lose weight. They're helping my leg chiggers.

AUBREY: Pam Schwartz is executive director of community health at Kaiser Permanente, which recently committed $50 million to bolster its Food Is Medicine initiatives.

PAM SCHWARTZ: Health care across the nation is moving in this direction. There's quite a buzz about Food Is Medicine and also the role of health care and being part of the solution.

AUBREY: Pilot studies show that providing healthy meals to help nourish people with Type 2 diabetes can help reduce medical costs and improve patients' A1C, a measure of blood sugar. And Schwartz says Kaiser Permanente's latest research adds more evidence.

SCHWARTZ: In the spring of 2020, we launched three medically tailored meal studies for patients who were recently discharged from our hospitals.

AUBREY: Patients received 10 weeks of medically tailored meals. A control group received usual care, with no meals. They were followed for several months after discharge. Turns out, receiving the meals was associated with lower mortality and fewer hospitalizations for heart failure.

SCHWARTZ: I wasn't surprised, but I do know that health care needs more studies for us to be able to understand how to scale.

AUBREY: Michelle Pagoni says having healthy meals delivered has helped her change her diet, away from cookies and chips.

PAGONI: It's amazing that I'm eating vegetables over my junk food. Cooked carrots - and another one I'm actually eating is Brussels sprouts, and I'm starting to enjoy.

AUBREY: She's learned a new way to eat, and it's changed her outlook.

PAGONI: The way I'm feeling now is I have more energy, and the food is just helping me all around.

AUBREY: And her health care providers say if she can build on this momentum, this is the promise of food as medicine.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEN I TRUST'S "TAILWHIP REVISITED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey
Allison Aubrey is a Washington-based correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She has reported extensively on the coronavirus pandemic since it began, providing near-daily coverage of new developments and effects. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.