California has become the first state to launch a pilot program that will treat low-income and at-risk Medicaid patients with specially tailored meals that are proven to offer relief from chronic illnesses and diseases.

The “Food is Medicine” 3-year program draws on how certain illnesses require special diets that can be hard to orchestrate, especially for poorer patients. Congestive heart failure, for instance, requires people to consume less than one teaspoon of salt per day. While this can already be hard to actually measure throughout your daily meals, it can also be hard for low-income patients to find cheap foods that are low in sodium.

Over the course of the next three years, the state will be giving funding to hunger relief charities in San Francisco, the North Bay Area, Santa Clara County, Los Angeles, and San Diego. The charities and pantries, all of which are a part of the Food is Medicine coalition, will be providing specially prepared meals to 1,000 state Medicaid patients who suffer from congestive heart failure, cancer, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and renal disease.

Gov. Jerry Brown (D) first approved the program back in June 2017, but legislators celebrated the actual launch of the program last Sunday.

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“We couldn’t be more excited to turn this local success story into a statewide program that will improve the health of those who need it most while reducing costs for taxpayers over the long term,” Senator McGuire said. “The bottom line: We believe, over the next three years, we’ll demonstrate enhanced health outcomes for chronically ill Medi-Cal patients and save millions in health care costs.”

The initiative was first inspired by the work of the Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance (MANNA) in Philadelphia. The organization published a study on their work in 2013 that showed the impressive benefits of using food to treat the chronically ill.

The study showed that patients who were given three medically-tailored meals a day over the course of six months experienced a dramatic drop in monthly healthcare costs, from $38,937 per month to $28,183 per month, which was 55% lower than control groups in the study.

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Not only that, participants were half as likely to visit the emergency room – and when they did, they spent less time at the facilities. Additionally, patients were more likely to be discharged from hospitals and sent home, rather than being sent to special treatment facilities.

California now hopes to enjoy the same benefits and save taxpayers millions in healthcare costs.

Hilary Seligman of the UCSF Global Health Sciences, said: “I am so pleased to see progress toward ensuring that the most critically ill patients have access to the food they need to stay healthy in their homes. Not only do these meals nourish, but they also hold promise for keeping people out of the hospital, preventing health crises, and allowing people to maintain independence at home.”

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