The eighth annual Food Is Medicine Symposium invites Islanders to educate themselves about the myriad ways nutrition can benefit those who are at risk or living with chronic illness.
But Food Is Medicine Massachusetts (FIMMA) is not just focused on providing medically tailored meals to those who are living with serious illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, and HIV — they are looking to address the entire spectrum of food needs to ensure people have education and access surrounding nutrition, as well as strengthening existing food service networks.
The three-part symposium will be hosted by the Harvard Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation (CHLPI) and Community Servings, a Boston-based not-for-profit that prepares and delivers scratch-made, medically tailored meals to individuals and families living with critical and chronic illnesses in Massachusetts.
According to Katie Garfield, a clinical instructor at CHLPI, the symposium has always aimed to shine a spotlight on the latest advancements in research, policy, and broader innovation in the Food Is Medicine field.
The three-part series also offers a space for collaboration and education for organizations such as healthcare providers and community food networks that are delivering these types of nutrition interventions.
Normally, the event consists of a one-night in-person presentation, with a series of panels and presentations on-Island, but due to COVID, the symposium will be in the form of one-hour webinars that each tackle a different facet of food as medicine.
The first webinar will be focused on the initiative on a national level, including a conversation with Congressman Jim McGovern, D-MA, and with a client of Community Servings, Vanessa Georges.
Garfield said McGovern recently introduced a bill that would create a pilot program with coverage for medically tailored meals embedded in Medicare.
The second webinar will zero in on one of the central resources for Food Is Medicine interventions in Massachusetts — the Accountable Care Organization (ACO) Flexible Services Program, offered by MassHealth.
That webinar will include comments from secretary of health and human services, Marylou Sudders, as well as a panel focused on the partner organizations and their experiences with Flexible Services.
The third webinar is all about highlighting the role of philanthropy in driving innovation. Garfield said this will include a conversation with several service providers, discussing with them the role of food as medicine for the population they are interested in.
Although medically tailored meals have historically targeted “the sickest of the sick, those who are so ill they cannot shop or cook for themselves,” Garfield said her institution and others in FIMMA understand there is a range of individuals who could benefit from a variety of nutrition services.
“How do we bring this spectrum of services together and think about the ways they can serve an entire community?” Garfield asked. “Some folks may just benefit from greater access to nutritious food, while others need a more specific plan for their health.”
She said the goal of FIMMA, and of the symposium, is to create a “spectrum of services for a spectrum of need.”
Additionally, education regarding nutrition and diet isn’t just essential for the general public, it is important for healthcare providers so they can be adequately equipped to screen for nutritional deficiencies and talk to patients about how what they eat impacts their health.
“Then those providers can refer patients to organizations that can help meet their needs,” Garfield said.
Jean Terranova, director of food and health policy at Community Servings, said the symposium aims to highlight the critical role of nutrition in healthcare, both as an intervention to improve health outcomes and lower healthcare costs, but also to increase general quality of life for patients.
For the past few years, Terranova said FIMMA has been working to refine how Food Is Medicine services are applied to individuals and communities — “from medically tailored meals to fruit and vegetable programs, and everything in between.”
She said the symposium will provide evidence showing the importance of these services, and the need for federal and state policies that ensure these interventions and resources are embedded in the healthcare system.
With COVID increasing demand for food services, and creating access barriers to healthy foods, Terranova said the pandemic has created a “perfect storm” for the Food Is Medicine movement.
“The demand for all these services has never been greater,” she said.
Apart from food insecurity running rampant in the U.S. and in Massachusetts, Terranova said, COVID creates “huge operational challenges” due to health restrictions.
“If you have ever been in a production kitchen, people are really standing elbow to elbow, chopping, packaging, and so forth. All members of the [FIMMA] coalition have had to overhaul their operations so we are standing six feet apart, wearing masks and gloves,” she said. “These things add up to a lack of efficiency.”
Particularly in seasonal vacation communities like Martha’s Vineyard, where the service and hospitality industries are hurting, Terranova said the need for food resources is increasing every day. “The ripple effects are truly incredible, and I think it is going to last for a while, even if we see a vaccine and improvements in the economy,” she added.
And with health risks associated with being exposed to others, Terranova said the volunteer base, which is the lifeblood of many benevolent food organizations, has drastically diminished.
According to Terranova, the goal of FIMMA and the symposium is to strengthen networks and relationships that already exist between food resource organizations, and bridge new connections so that those in need of nutrition-based healthcare can receive the services they need.
- First webinar: The Future of Food Is Medicine at the Federal Level, Thursday, Nov. 12, 10 to 11 am. Register here: bit.ly/harvardfood.
- Second webinar: Food Is Medicine in Massachusetts: Utilizing Pathways in the Massachusetts Flexible Services Program, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 1 to 2 pm. Register here: bit.ly/Harvardfood2.
- Third webinar: The Role of Philanthropy in Driving Innovation, date and time TBD.