For Type II diabetics, taking pills three times a day has become synonymous to eating three meals a day. But many afflicted individuals struggle to even see these three meals. 12.3%

of U.S. households are classified as food insecure, and 9.4%  of the population has diabetes. At first glance, these two statistics appear to be unrelated, as many are under the impression that the primary source of the most prevalent form of diabetes (Type II) is consuming food in excess – but it actually comes down to more quality, than quantity, of food. So, these two statistics do have something in common: the rate at which they occur under the same roof.

Judy Holtz

Our broken food system, fueled by processed meat, corn GMOs, and a side of added sugar, sends many Americans down a path more-traveled that often leads to diabetes development. Right on the heels of diagnoses are ensuing health complications, exorbitant medical costs, and prescription after prescription after prescription. In 2012, 18% of 245 billion lost to Type II diabetes went to prescription medications intended to treat complications.

Yet, in addition to suffering from a lengthy list of side effects associated with these drugs, many of the individuals behind these statistics do not know when, or from where, their next meal will come because they are food insecure. Diabetics often rely on cheap, caloric-rich foods that end up worsening their conditions, which prompts the use of even more medication. Thus, in addition to raising the risk of initial diabetes development by more than 50%, food insecurity is associated with a vicious cycle of insufficient disease management.

Food pharmacies have emerged as solutions to these difficult situations that become more frequent with each passing day. By creating a bridge between the healthcare and food systems, vulnerable individuals have increased access to healthy foods that act to supplement their medications.

This relatively new concept addresses both the financial constraints of many diabetic patients’ diets and hits the cause of the disease fork-on. Several models have evolved since the introduction of the concept by the Boston Medical Center  in 2001 with their preventive food pantry, which started in response to their patients’ struggles with food insecurity.

One such model is the food pharmacy operated by the Samaritan House in Redwood City, California. Located onsite at the Samaritan House Health Clinic, this pharmacy receives shipments of produce and healthy grains donated by the Second Harvest Food Bank. Doctors write patients prescriptions for foods designed to fit their health profiles, and patients fill them right on site.

Across the country, Geisinger Shamokin Area Community Hospital in Pennsylvania started a similar program wittingly titled the Fresh Food Farmacy for six diabetic patients with HbA1c levels, or average blood sugar concentration, above 8.0 (the threshold for Type II Diabetes is 5.6). A combination of education and food services now reaches more than 250 patients and their families.

While still narrow in scope and preliminary in process, the progress achieved by food pharmacies is promising. At the Silver Avenue Medical Center Food Pharmacy in San Francisco, 75% of patients reported better access to healthy foods, 50% had better blood sugar levels, and 38% had lower blood pressure. Additionally, individual success stories illuminate how patients have either significantly reduced their dosage or have completely ceased all medications. Future data analysis will unveil whether these successes hold true across patient populations and time, but the stage has been set for hospitals and health centers throughout the country. There’s a new drug in town, and the suppliers are food banks, local farmers, healthcare institutions themselves, and you.

Though food pharmacies add yet another bandage to the layer atop our broken food system, improvements in patient satisfaction, health outcomes, and costs of beneficiaries have the potential to lessen the tremendous strain of chronic diseases on the healthcare system. With time and scalability, such programs may prove their cost-effectiveness through subsequent drops in pharmaceutical costs, which currently account for about 12.2% of the $13.3 trillion spent on healthcare.

vegetable, pasture, pepper
Kristine Mahan

While we will always necessitate prescriptions and pharmaceutical innovation, it is time to wean off of our dependency on drugs and to rely more on the universal healer: healthy food. Food pharmacies use this approach for the most vulnerable individuals, who pay the annual price tag of $7,900 diabetes inflicted upon them by our destructive food system. Food insecure diabetics need help that will only come from an unfeasible food system restructuring – or from a solution generated by us.

Food pharmacies provide food insecure diabetics with the healthy foods they need, but they require the support of entire communities. Diet recommendations alone will amount to nothing without the means to put them into action. Whether it is through volunteering time at a local food bank, or encouraging the start of a conversation between a physician practice and the CSA program down the street, a place exists for everyone to reach the sickest victims of our villainous food system.