SACRAMENTO – Assemblymember Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) has introduced AB 368, an innovative “food prescription” pilot program designed to address COVID-19 racial and ethnic health disparities, combat chronic diseases, and reduce health care costs through improved nutrition.
The pilot program’s primary goal is to treat, reverse, and prevent chronic health conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and depression – health conditions that disproportionately impact communities of color.
Under the pilot program, health providers would be able to offer food prescriptions to eligible Medi-Cal beneficiaries with underlying health conditions – particularly those that put them at higher risk for severe COVID-19 – that can be treated with a food prescription.
Food prescriptions are administered by Food as Medicine or other medically supportive food programs such as renewable food prescriptions, produce prescriptions, and healthy food vouchers, boxes, groceries, or prepared meals. Beneficiaries receive nutrient-rich whole food, including fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole-grains, lean proteins, and seafood, which may be paired with behavioral, cooking, or nutrition education, coaching, and counseling.
“Just as a health provider would write a prescription for an antibiotic for an infection, a prescription for nutritious food can have the same healing effect,” said Bonta said. “It is morally wrong to have millions of Californians not have adequate access to healthy food because of where they live or their socioeconomic standing.”
“AB 368 is bold, innovative, and ambitious. The current COVID-19 health pandemic is not only harming our families and neighbors, but also draining billions of dollars of state and federal resources,” Bonta said.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hospitalizations were six times higher, ICU admissions five times higher, and deaths 12 times higher for COVID-19 patients with underlying medical conditions compared to those without.
AB 368 would establish a food prescription pilot program in partnership with Medi-Cal managed care plans in three counties as a multi-level partnership across each area. Currently, the county of Alameda has a medically supportive food program that would serve as the framework on the expansion of food prescriptions. Medi-Cal beneficiaries are an especially important population in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the disproportionate impact it is having on low-income households and communities of color.
“By addressing underlying health conditions impacting communities of color, we can also make them more resilient in the face of the pandemic,” said Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan, an early champion of medically supportive food interventions. “We need only look at statistics from the California Department of Public Health to see that African-Americans and Latinx represent a disproportionately higher percentage of COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations compared to their representation in the population partly due to higher levels of preexisting health conditions and poverty in their communities.”
“Today, more than 130 million Americans are affected by chronic diseases that are often preventable, treatable, and reversible with food as medicine. COVID-19 has magnified the connection between chronic diseases and other health inequities such as food insecurity, social isolation, and racism,” said Dr. Steven Chen, Chief Medical Officer for ALL IN Alameda County. “COVID is requiring us to work differently across silos to advance health equity and build healthier communities.”
“The Food as Medicine initiative in Alameda County demonstrates that a partnership between government, health plans, health providers and Medi-Cal recipients reduces disparities and potentially saves millions of dollars from avoided emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and medication utilization,” said Dr. Larissa Estes-White, Director of ALL IN Alameda County. “This model takes a whole person, whole community approach that build resilience and will transform the quality of life of many individuals, families, and communities through the healing effects of food and move us forward on the road to COVID-19 recovery.”
Similar programs have been established in several California communities including San Francisco and Alameda County, but lack of funding has delayed the expansion of these interventions into the most impacted communities in California, including rural communities.
AB 368 is sponsored by Alameda County in conjunction with Supervisor Wilma Chan and ALL IN Alameda County. Legislation to provide medically supportive food to Medi-Cal beneficiaries has also been recommended by the COVID-19 Racial Disparities Task Force, which was co-chaired by Assemblymember Bonta, Supervisor Chan, City of Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, and Dr. Tony Iton, Senior Vice President at The California Endowment.
Assemblymember Rob Bonta represents the 18th Assembly District, which includes the cities of Oakland, Alameda, and San Leandro and is the Assistant Majority Leader.