White House Conference Shines Desperately Needed Spotlight on Hunger, Nutrition and Health – SaportaReport

By guest columnists MATTHEW PEEPERexecutive director of Open Hand Atlanta and KEVIN WOODSpresident of the Atlanta Medical Association.

After moving to Atlanta in 2020, David, a successful publicist and professor, finds himself in a financial crisis after the pandemic wreaks havoc on his career. Things took a turn for the worse when a rare disease left him temporarily blind. He was diagnosed with ocular rosacea, an inflammation that usually causes redness, burning and blurred vision. With no social safety net and isolated in his apartment, David turned to Open Hand Atlanta for food to help him deal with the financial and medical crisis. Nearly a year later, he saw huge improvements in his health and returned to the classroom this fall. Open Hand Atlanta’s nourishing meals have contributed greatly to his recovery and health today.

Kevin Woods is president of the Atlanta Medical Association.

When people are seriously ill, good nutrition is one of the first things to deteriorate, making recovery and stabilization more difficult, if not impossible. Open Hand Atlanta, one of the largest community-based providers of medically personalized meals and food services in the US, recently reported that a third of its customers would have no idea where their next meal would come from if it weren’t for receiving Open Hand dishes. David is certainly among them.

For the first time in over 50 years, the White House will host the Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health on September 28. This is a historic opportunity to drive “food is medicine” interventions – bringing food to the forefront of addressing the health crisis plaguing the US. The goal is to accelerate progress and drive meaningful change to end hunger, improve nutrition and physical activity, reduce diet-related diseases, and close the disparities surrounding them. The last time a conference of this nature was held, it resulted in sweeping legislation such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); the concept of the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program; school breakfast and lunch programs; the national approach to creating dietary guidelines; and the nutrition label.

The mission is clear—reimagining our nation’s food system to end hunger, improve nutrition, and reduce diet-related chronic disease. This conference can shine a light on our communities that are vulnerable due to food insecurity, especially those facing chronic diseases.

The solutions are also clear.

  • Common sense policies, as advocated by the national Food is Medicine Coalition, should include modernizing Medicare and Medicaid to make medically personalized meals a fully reimbursable benefit for people living with serious and chronic illnesses. Additionally, fully funding and implementing large-scale medical nutrition pilot programs in the Medicare and Medicaid programs would have far-reaching benefits. Early and reliable access to medically appropriate meals helps people live healthy and productive lives, leads to better overall health outcomes and reduces health care costs. It’s a solution that improves population and individual health, improves the care experience, and is proven to reduce costs.
  • Expanding research into medically tailored meals has great potential. For example, Open Hand recently began researching the impact of medically tailored meals on women with gestational diabetes and improving outcomes for mothers and their babies. Georgia has one of the highest infant mortality rates in America.
  • Finally, identifying food insecurity and malnutrition in clinical settings is an urgent priority. Screening patients for food insecurity and connecting patients to food resources was strongly supported in official statements by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Diabetes Association, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the AARP.

Matthew Piper is the executive director of Open Hand Atlanta.

We are facing new challenges in our food system that are harming Americans and costing the country hundreds of billions of dollars in preventable health care costs each year. A person’s diet can have life and death implications and contributes to high rates of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. About 50% of US adults have diabetes or prediabetes, and 75% are overweight or obese. Chronic diseases and nutrition-sensitive diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and HIV/AIDS are widespread in Georgia.

Many adverse health outcomes are rooted in lack of access to good nutrition, which is exacerbated by racial and socioeconomic disparities. In Georgia, access to medical meals is extremely limited. And that needs to change.

The US is at a critical crossroads in the fight against hunger, food insecurity and diet-related diseases. This is a seminal moment for increasing access to medical meals and creating prescription programs, as well as more robust nutrition training for clinicians and appropriate insurance coverage for counseling by registered dietitians.

We implore all who gather at the White House conference this month to be a catalyst for expanding access to these life-saving interventions.

Would you like to write a guest column for SaportaReport? The SR team strives to elevate and expand diverse perspectives in our community, and we want to hear from you! Email editor Derek Prall to discuss specifics.

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