December 12, 2023

Hundreds attend first Food Is Medicine Summit

Attendees look at ways to get healthy food to people who don’t have enough or who have a serious illness.

The Food Is Medicine Summit was attended by researchers, policymakers, health care professionals, and representatives from community organizations.

Hundreds of researchers, policymakers, and representatives from community organizations gathered for the first-ever Colorado Food Is Medicine Summit on November 8, 2023. Panelists discussed how getting healthy food to people not only fuels their bodies and minds, but can help manage ongoing conditions, decrease recovery time after hospitalization, and save patients and health systems money.

The result: healthier Coloradans and more affordable health care costs.

Kaiser Permanente and Project Angel Heart convened the summit in partnership with the Colorado Health Institute and Food Bank of the Rockies.

“By the end of the day, we will have a better understanding of the current state of ‘food is medicine’ in Colorado, and how our collective groups can work together to enhance our collective impact,” Mike Ramseier, regional president of Kaiser Permanente in Colorado, said in opening remarks. “Everyone deserves food that enhances their health.”

Owen Ryan, president and CEO of Project Angel Heart, said the summit showcased successful ‘food is medicine’ initiatives across Colorado and set the table for future collaboration.

“There is a big community in Colorado that is interested and invested in ‘food as medicine’, but that Colorado community is not as connected as it could be,” Ryan said. “I think today is a tipping point for Colorado. This is going to change how we deliver ‘food is medicine’ to people across the state.”

Food Is Medicine — what is it?

Food Is Medicine initiatives address more than just nutrition education. They are about the connection between health and food, equitable access to healthy foods, and food as a contributor to a person’s overall health.

These initiatives include a spectrum of programs for those who need the most support, such as people who:

  • Have an acute or chronic illness or are at risk of developing illnesses
  • Are recovering from a major medical event, such as a heart attack or surgery
  • Are malnourished and can’t afford or lack access to the types and amount of food they need to be their healthiest
  • Have a serious illness or disability that prevents them from shopping or cooking for themselves

How people access Food Is Medicine programs takes many different forms, ranging from drive-up food banks — where people can pick up a free box full of fruits, vegetables, meats, and other items to make nutritious meals — to the premade, medically tailored meals delivered to the homes of people with serious illnesses.

At Kaiser Permanente, patients answer screening questions to help determine whether they have access to healthy food. Community health specialists, doctors, nurses, and others then connect the members to community organizations that can help fulfill the patients’ needs.

The first Food Is Medicine Summit brought statewide stakeholders together to focus on how the different groups involved in these initiatives can improve their collective reach and impact.

As a part of the National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, Kaiser Permanente is supporting Food Is Medicine efforts in Colorado. Kaiser Permanente supported Project Angel Heart’s expansion into southern Colorado in 2022 with a $580,000 grant, and in early 2023 awarded a 3-year grant of $1.4 million to fund the program’s continued expansion into northern Colorado. In 2022, Kaiser Permanente also supported Food Bank of the Rockies’ Culturally Responsive Food Initiative with a $480,000 grant to work with smaller food banks to build their diversity, equity, inclusivity, and access practices.

Bending the health care cost curve

Food Is Medicine initiatives can also impact health care costs. Project Angel Heart’s research shows that medically tailored meals can improve people’s health and reduce health care costs. One study examined data from the Colorado All Payer Claims Database and found that among 708 clients with different chronic diseases who received 1 medically tailored meal a day for 6 months, hospital readmission rates declined 13%. And there was a 24% average reduction in total health care costs across several chronic conditions.