Aspen Institute’s Food is Medicine Initiative to Catalyze Research to Transform Health System

June 17, 2020

Initiative covers two-day virtual convening to examine the current state of Food is Medicine research and identify important gaps.

Contact: Jon Purves
Senior Media Relations Manager
The Aspen Institute
[email protected]

Washington, DC, June 17, 2020 – Today, Food and Society at the Aspen Institute announced the launch of an ambitious new Food is Medicine Initiative to advance research on the impact of food and nutrition interventions on individual health and the health care system.

Increasing access to nutritious food through health care, the Food is Medicine movement holds, helps prevent, manages, and treats diet-related illness. Preliminary data show that Food is Medicine interventions improve patient outcomes and reduce health care costs; however, more research is needed to demonstrate the full potential of these interventions and implement them nationwide—and create the health system transformation that can make everyone, particularly the most vulnerable, eat better and live healthier lives.

“The Food is Medicine movement has unique promise but poses unique challenges,” says Corby Kummer, executive director of the Institute’s Food and Society Program. “It requires a common understanding of the field by decision makers and experts across disparate sectors—non-profit, health care, academia, government, and philanthropy. But many of them mean different things when they say ‘Food Is Medicine.’ Food and Society saw an opportunity to leverage the Institute’s ability to bring together many kinds of leaders to build consensus and move the field forward—and we were lucky to find a key partner in the Walmart Foundation. We will get all the movement’s key players in the same (Zoom) room while also engaging voices and perspectives—such as community-based program providers—who might otherwise be excluded.”

The new initiative formally gets under way this week with a two-day virtual convening to examine the current state of Food is Medicine research and identify important gaps. Putting researchers, health care payers and clinicians, food and nutrition nonprofits organizations, retail, and policy advocates in active conversation is an opportunity to significantly advance the field. With the Covid-19 pandemic putting the frailties of our health and food systems on display, change is on the horizon. Strong and focused investment in Food is Medicine research could transform the future of how our health care system responds to nutrition needs.

Though the pandemic put a hold on the series of in-person meetings planned by Kummer and his working partners—subject matter expert Emma Clippinger and Sarah Downer, Associate Director for Whole Person Care at the Harvard Law School’s Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation—it has underscored the urgency of the work. “Every week the economic and racial disparities of the pandemic are starker,” he says. “Studies of who is hit hardest already point to diet-related risk factors. The Food is Medicine Initiative will call for research on interventions that can respond to those risk factors.”

The initiative includes a 20-person advisory board, comprising leaders in program design and implementation, research, health care, retail, policy, philanthropy, and government.

Downer, who has for eight years worked on greater integration of food and nutrition into the health care system, sees the Institute’s Food Is Medicine initiative as a critical prerequisite to transforming our health care system to make it more person-centered, outcome-driven, and cost-effective. “Food insecurity is a major driver of poor health outcomes and therefore of costs,” she says. “If we want a healthier United States, we have to equip our health care system to better respond to food and nutrition needs. Research will guide us. We need more.”

“Nutrition has always played an important role in improving health outcomes, and the current moment has shined a light on the pressing need to accelerate work addressing food-related health disparities,” says Julie Gehrki, vice president of philanthropy for Walmart.org. “We are proud to support the Aspen Institute in convening key researchers and community leaders to advance the development and adoption of Food Is Medicine innovations.”

“The COVID-19 epidemic has exposed the remarkable degree to which the US has de-emphasized and de-funded prevention,” says Dr. Hilary Seligman, a leading Food Is Medicine and food-insecurity researcher at the University of California San Francisco. “Access to healthy food is critical to disease prevention.  This conveningnwill help us articulate how we might once again integrate healthy food into our systems of health care in the US.”

The past few years have included a number of important milestones for the Food is Medicine movement, including national news coverage and groundbreaking government funding and policy commitments. Most recently, on May 27, 2020, the National Institutes of Health released its long-awaited inaugural Strategic Plan for Nutrition Research, which includes improved use of “food as medicine” among its overarching four strategic goals. The Food Is Medicine Initiative’s research road map, Emma Clippinger says, is “perfectly positioned to offers a pathway for enhanced federal support—and that’s just what the exciting NIH plan envisions.”

“The change Covid-19 has brought to the whole country shows frightening gaps and nutritional needs across the whole country,” Kummer says. “The Food Is Medicine Initiative will point the way to filling those gaps. The time is now.”

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Food and Society at the Aspen Institute brings together public health leaders, policymakers, researchers, farmers, chefs, food makers, and entrepreneurs to find practical solutions to food system challenges and inequities. Current initiatives include a definitive and widely distributed set of food worker safety guidelines in kitchens and dining rooms during Covid-19; developing a research road map for the use of food as medicine, to increase the data supporting an exciting movement to treat and prevent diet-related chronic illnesses; protecting the physical and financial health of the most vulnerable food-service workers and increasing opportunities for people of color to move into management and especially ownership positions in the food-service industry; creating a draft framework to regulate gene-edited crops and ingredients in the food supply, to ensure public trust; and finding common ground in current soda-tax initiatives to bring about meaningful health improvements. The common goal is to help people of all income levels eat better and more healthful diets—and to enjoy them bite by bite.

Corby Kummer is executive director of the Food and Society policy program at the Aspen Institute, editor-in-chief of Ideas: The Magazine of the Aspen Institute, a senior editor of The Atlantic, and senior lecturer at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science. He has received six James Beard Journalism Awards. Find him on Twitter @CKummer.

The Aspen Institute is a global nonprofit organization committed to realizing a free, just, and equitable society. Founded in 1949, the Institute drives change through dialogue, leadership, and action to help solve the most important challenges facing the United States and the world. Headquartered in Washington, DC, the Institute has a campus in Aspen, Colorado, and an international network of partners. For more information, visit www.aspeninstitute.org

During the COVID-19 crisis, the Aspen Institute is adapting to address the challenges of the pandemic. Learn more about some of the solutions we’re proposing, the actions we’re taking, and the changemakers we’re supporting.

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