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Food is Medicine: A seismic shift in how Tampa Bay leaders feed people

Food is medicine concept taking off in Tampa Bay
Executive Chef Daniel Graves at Feeding Tampa Bay's Trinity Cafe.
Posted at 4:54 AM, Nov 09, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-09 18:53:07-05

TAMPA, Fla. — Local food pantries, medical professionals, chefs, and professors are all teaming up to find the best way to keep people fed and, more importantly, healthy.


At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a lot of focus on eating healthy to boost your immune system. Around the same time, Feeding Tampa Bay launched its Food RX program. It was an idea several years in the making, but the pandemic sped up the process. Three years later, the success of Feeding Tampa Bay's food is medicine program is more successful than anyone could've imagined.

"It's really the future of food banking," Matt Spence, Chief Programs Officer at Feeding Tampa Bay, told ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska.

"We built out food pharmacies, all across our service territory, where if someone goes in and they have a diet-related disease condition, like hypertension or diabetes, their doctor can write a prescription that says go see feeding Tampa Bay," Spence said. "And, the challenge for many healthcare providers is that they can't prescribe healthy diets, and then expect people who can't afford it to go and purchase that fruit, that vegetable, that low sodium meal, that whole grain. If you can't afford it, it doesn't matter whether your doctor tells you that's what you should be eating."

Spence said most of the food they distribute is now the outer ring of the grocery store, "that fresh, healthier stuff. It's your proteins, dairy products, and especially fruits and vegetables. It's a more expensive part of your bill when you shop. And it's certain things that we want to make sure we're eating for a good healthy, well-balanced diet. And so it's incredible that our donors give us this food that we can make sure it gets out on the plates of the folks who need it."


The food is medicine program is more expensive to maintain, but in the long run, experts believe healthy food will help struggling families financially and keep them out of the hospital.

"It's not just filling a food gap but addressing a longer-term issue of looking at food as health," David Himmelgreen, the Director for the USF Center of the Advancement of Food Security and Healthy Communities, told Paluska.

Himmelgreen said he'd advised Feeding Tampa Bay on getting the right foods to the right people and cultures for years. His work has taken him to Central America, India, and Africa.

"But it also is providing culturally meaningful foods to people, the food that they're used to, that they know how to prepare, that they can make healthier is really important," Himmelgreen said. "And, we know from research that you can give people food from a food pantry, and they'll use some of it, and some of that they may discard, and some of it they may give away because they're not used to it, or they don't know how to prepare it."

Himmelgreen said his studies and social and biological data show the programs are working.

"We've learned that people who redeemed more food had better self-management of their disease conditions," Himmelgreen said. "So, the more they redeemed, the better their hemoglobins were somewhat they lost a small amount of weight, their BMI's went down. Their food security status improved. So there is a connection between using a food pantry, food as medicine program, and seeing some better management of a disease. You could feed a family of four a nutritious food secure diet for about $800 a month; one visit to the ER is going to cost 1000s of dollars. So there are those cost savings there."

Himmelgreen said recent studies show that healthy food, in some instances, can be the difference between life and death. For example, in a 2020 study released by BMJ, formerly the British Medical Journal, researchers stated, "one of every five deaths across the globe is attributable to suboptimal diet, more than any other risk factor including tobacco."

And researchers argued healthcare systems now more "food is medicine interventions to prevent, manage, and treat illness."


Several medical facilities are teaming up with Feeding Tampa Bay to grow their Food RX program.

At a community event in Pasco County, we visited a mobile clinic operated by BayCare Health System.

"We fully believe that food is medicine; for an individual to thrive, they have to be able to get access to healthy and nutritious food," Lisa Bell, the Director of Community Benefit for BayCare, said. "We have 42 school-based pantries across the region and aid here in Pasco County. And now, we're looking to deepen that relationship with feeding Tampa Bay and bringing in our community health teams to do screenings and potentially other preventive services along the way. But to date, we've provided over 7500 Healing bags to patients across our health system."

While at the mobile clinic, we watched a husband and wife get a quick check-up.

"It's a free screening," Jennifer Daoud said. "We just wanted to see what it was, just a basic blood little fingerprick screening."

"What do you hope to find out once you get a finger prick today?" Paluska asked.

"That all my levels are great. Like they should be. And if they're not, then I'll address it. It's so convenient; it's nice," Daoud responded.


At Trinity Cafe, Executive Chef Daniel Graves is cooking up a feast.

"We put our heart into it. We want to cook as if we're cooking for our family. And it's always about giving them dignity and respect," Graves said.

Just outside the walls of the Trinity Cafe, waiting for a daily hot meal, are dozens of people in need. Graves said food is one way to heal and, hopefully, one day get them off the streets.

"The way I look at it is food as medicine. Food heals the body. Without food and nutrition, your body will not heal, and a lot of our guests, again, the one meal that they eat each day. So it's a blessing to be able to do that for them," Graves said. "And that's the impact that is still so special and unreal, sometimes because I carry it with me. But we have people who actually serve now as volunteers who were once our guests."

"Do they tell you how hungry they are? Can you see it?" Paluska asked.

"Oh my gosh, I've had more people than I can count. Come up, knock on the back door at any given time families, a young woman with two daughters said, I'm starving. I haven't eaten in two days. Can you help me out? And, of course, we're going to help them out," Graves said. That's what we do."

The cafe can make 800 to 1000 meals daily, depending on the need. Graves said later this month; they will hit a milestone.

"We have three locations, and we'll be celebrating 2 million meals, and we're very proud of that," Graves said.

As food pantries, medical facilities, and schools shift their pantries to healthier food. The need for basic food of all types has never been more critical.

"We are still seeing an elevated need. We think that about a million people in the Tampa Bay area are still struggling with food security," Spence said.

If you want to help by donating to Feeding Tampa Bay, you can CLICK HERE.