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A Conversation With Dr. Kofi Essel on Why Food as Medicine Matters to Elevance Health

Elevance Health Impact
August 24, 2023

Access to nutritious food is an important social driver that affects health. ‘Access’ means a person has the money to pay for nutritious food, the transportation to a store that sells it, and the tools and skills to prepare and serve it. It’s one of several health-related social needs that, when addressed, can influence health as much as exercise frequency, tobacco use or blood pressure. Elevance Health is working to shape a health system where social drivers are further embedded into healthcare. With Dr. Kofi Essel joining the company, we’re strengthening our commitment to addressing the health-related social needs of our health plan members, our associates, and our communities. 

What is meant by the concept of food as medicine?

We know there’s an important link between nutrition and health; in fact, poor nutrition is one of the leading risk factors for worsening quality of life and a shorter lifespan. The concept of food as medicine is defined as strategies or interventions that work as part of healthcare to improve access to nutritious food to prevent, manage, or even treat disease. Typically, these strategies involve tools such as medically tailored meals or groceries, produce prescription programs, or a number of other public health programs (such as the WIC program) designed to optimize health. More than half of adults in the United States have at least one chronic condition, and the majority of these are related to their diet. Using food as medicine means building the infrastructure to address that critical link between nutrition and health. When we prioritize food within whole health, alongside access and availability, the data clearly shows that our health benefits. 

How does this relate to food insecurity?

Food insecurity exists when people don’t have consistent access to nutritious foods to live an active and healthy lifestyle. It’s often triggered by financial hardship, scarcity of grocery stores, or transportation barriers. When money gets tight, families may compromise on food. They’re still eating, but they’re eating less nutritious food to stretch their dollars. And eating unhealthy food can make a sick person even sicker.

Why does a health company like Elevance Health care about food as medicine?

Food and nutrition have a significant impact on health. Because our health strategy is based on a holistic view of health, it’s critical that we help find ways to improve access to nutritious food for the people and communities we serve. Our programs and interventions must acknowledge the role food plays for everyone, including those who are managing chronic diseases. When you see a chronic disease like Type 2 diabetes as a symptom, you have to see things like food as an important part of the solution.

What does success look like in your new role as Elevance Health food as medicine director?

Elevance Health has for decades been a leader in implementing programs and outreach across the country using food as medicine strategies to reduce food insecurity and manage specific health conditions. The next step is to bring those together under one organizational strategy, coordinating and streamlining them to have the biggest impact. Success will be measured through the lens of better health outcomes.

Why are health companies dedicating resources to this concept, and what is Elevance Health’s view on food as medicine? What can the company add to this effort or do differently?

There is increased awareness and recognition of the effects of food on health nationwide, especially the effects of ultra-processed foods. A poor diet really is one of the leading risk factors for worsening quality of life and shorter lifespan. The beautiful thing is, food is an authentic and powerful solution to addressing chronic and debilitating diet-related diseases.

Elevance Health is an industry leader in exploring innovative strategies that continue to appreciate the power of traditional medicine but also allow food to be a foundational tool to optimize health.

Lastly, the industry is beginning to become aware of the need to use a whole-health model like we have prioritized at Elevance Health. So much more goes into one’s health than what happens at the doctor’s office. We have put a focus on health-related social needs, as well as the cultural and taste preferences that come with it. Food must be part of our design for better health.

What are your top areas of focus in this new role?

I look forward to not only helping to build a meaningful strategy but also a clear business imperative for authentic food as medicine solutions across our organization. I am very excited to engage all of our associates in sharing this information.

What are some practical ways you personally use food as medicine?

As a practicing community pediatrician, I use food as medicine as part of my approach to help families reach their health goals. I know firsthand that physicians aren’t always trained extensively on nutrition, and we sometimes have a hard time approaching the topic with families. But it’s a priority in preventing, managing, treating—and many times reversing—diet-related chronic disease. However, the work can’t fall only on the care provider, and we have to acknowledge the factors like access, availability and affordability. The entire health system needs to work together to prioritize healthy food because it is one of the most important steps we can take to improve health. I appreciate the opportunity to encourage my colleagues around the country to join the movement and support their patients and families.

I also use food as medicine to optimize my own health. I know what it feels like to eat a meal and feel sleepy or unable to function. I use food as medicine to enjoy flavorful foods that just happen to be good for me, give me energy, and help me perform at my best in every aspect of my life.  

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