Health industries respond to “food as medicine” movement

  • Blog
  • November 10, 2023

Trisha Swift

DNP, MS-MAVIM, Managing Director, Health Transformation, PwC US


Leigh Ann Solomon

Director, Health Transformation, PwC US


Our previous healthcare blog, a call to action for Health Industries to treat food as medicine, emphasized how nutrition plays a crucial role in overall health and pointed out that it is essential for payers, providers and pharmaceutical leaders to take actions that address both nutrition and food equity. PwC developed a model to treat food as medicine that addresses the impact of nutrition on health by focusing on four key levers: food insecurity, access to nutritious food, medically tailored meals (MTM) and food technology.

We outlined several actions the healthcare industry can take, and here we expand on those actions, note market trends and enabling technology and the work PwC is doing to help clients treat food as medicine. PwC is already helping clients in this area and finds the following levers and challenges to be the most common across all sectors.

Food prescriptions: To encourage healthy lifestyle changes, providers can invest in food prescription programs for patients. These programs establish a partnership between a hospital and a local farmer’s market or community supported agriculture (CSA). Hospitals use food prescription programs in a variety of ways. Some hospitals host on-site farmer’s markets to give patients easy access to healthy food, while others partner with community organizations to ensure that their prescriptions will be an accepted form of payment. The produce prescription initiatives empower patients to take an active role in their health, which often leads to increased patient satisfaction and improved health outcomes. These initiatives also can provide accurate data to providers about their patients’ food intake. These programs are usually decentralized because they are local or grant-funded. Therefore, it can become challenging to estimate just how many people are receiving these interventions — and to find a way to reach a wider target population.

Food pharmacies: Food pharmacies (often spelled farmacies) are usually located in low-income or food-insecure areas, and they offer fresh and frozen items at reduced prices — or no cost. They also may provide additional services, such as behavior-change coaching and cooking demonstrations to support healthy eating habits.

Medically tailored meals: Through research and development efforts, the pharmaceutical industry can tailor nutritional supplements based on blood and lifecycle analyses. It can also use AI-driven platforms to identify health benefits of plant-based bioactives that hold human health benefits, including lowering the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes1 and can study patients’ microbiomes to better understand nutritional needs for the development of prebiotics and probiotics. These work to strengthen a person’s immune system, break down food compounds, and build vitamins and amino acids.2 For example, a new tech vendor is enabling precision medicine using an AI computational platform that examines bioactives in diets and medicines around the world, and can identify compounds that benefit specific biological pathways in areas related to metabolic, digestive and cognitive health.3 The field of precision nutrition, also called personally tailored diets, is new and has not had many clinical trials with consistent results. The technologies needed to study plant-based bioactives, patients’ microbiomes and food intake responses are also financially costly.4

Government support

The US Department of Health and Human Services and the Indian Health Service Agency donated $2.5 million to support produce prescription programs in Native communities to help individuals and families more easily obtain fresh fruits and vegetables.5 Medicaid has also approved benefits for food and nutrition services in Arkansas, Massachusetts and Oregon, giving low-income individuals greater access to healthy food and nutrition counseling.

These initiatives reflect a growing recognition of the importance of nutrition in promoting health and well-being. When food prices increase, it can become more difficult for people to access healthy, nutritious foods, and this can have negative impacts on their health.

In 2021 to 2022, US retail food prices rose by 11% — the largest annual increase in more than 40 years. Rising food prices particularly impact low-income consumers, who spend about 30% of their income on food.6 Food price inflation also can have significant impacts on medicine and food equity, highlighting the importance of addressing food affordability and accessibility.7

These initiatives also demonstrate a commitment to addressing the systemic factors that contribute to food insecurity.8 By investing in these programs, policymakers and healthcare providers can help improve health outcomes, reduce healthcare costs and promote overall wellness.

Enabling technology

Half of consumers are willing to use a grocer-provided app and share their data. This indicates their trust in their grocer to provide personalized, food-based health recommendations.9 Those most likely to share their health and medical data include young to middle-aged consumers in urban areas, millennials, those willing to pay a premium for food as medicine and those who buy plant-based alternatives to animal products. This situation presents a potential constructive collaboration with in-store pharmacies.

There are also opportunities to invest in enabling technology that facilitates food accessibility. These opportunities include food-as-medicine start-ups, which are gaining traction as consumer interest surges. Examples include platforms that prescribe healthy meals and tele-nutrition.10 Some obtain funding from private equity to expand their food-as-medicine solutions, such as medically tailored meals.11

Market trends

We’ve seen some major market themes and priorities with our clients. They include:

  • Evolving healthcare priorities: As our clients’ priorities to deliver care shift toward a more comprehensive approach, integrating nutrition into the care allows the healthcare industry to become more patient-centered. We are also seeing a prioritization of value-based care models and nutrition interventions on how our clients can contribute to value-driven healthcare by promoting better health at lower costs.
  • Policy and legislation: Public policy and legislation is evolving to support food as medicine programs. For example, the Medical Nutrition Therapy Act (S. 1536/H.R. 3108) is a bi-partisan bill that aims to improve access to nutritional services for Medicare beneficiaries.
  • Consumer demands: Consumer demands for nutrition and holistic healthcare have been evolving in response to changing lifestyles, increased awareness of health and wellness, and advancements in information accessibility and technology. Addressing nutrition within health equity can help payers, pharmaceutical companies and other providers meet both evolving patient expectations and business goals.
  • Market expansion: As consumer demands for healthy foods increase, so do the clients. There’s a growing interest in nutrition that has attracted investments and innovation from both startups and established companies. Consequently, healthcare providers and payers are starting to recognize the value of incorporating nutrition into their services.

How PwC can help

Payers, providers and pharma leaders are adapting their response to food and nutrition, but there is room for improvement, and PwC can help. PwC can support clients at any stage of their nutrition and health equity strategy. Some examples of the work we’ve done include:

  • PwC supported a payer client to determine the value of its meal services and the impact on the healthcare cost savings. We used advanced analytics modeling, AI and phytonutrient matching to measure the nutritional impact of meals and to forecast the health and economic impact. This allowed us to quantify the return on investment (ROI) for home meal delivery services across different target populations.
  • An integrated delivery network invested widely in community health, but it did not know whether it was driving the full impact possible for its investment. PwC used simulation modeling and machine learning to forecast future health needs and drivers of future poor health, and to provide intervention ROI comparisons to inform the impact of potential investments made today.
  • PwC created a digitally enabled, ecosystem-based solution to address the chronic disease burden in an underserved community for an academic medical center.

These are just a few examples of how PwC partners with its clients to achieve better patient outcomes, support an organization’s mission and improve the bottom line. PwC's tools, experience in mobilizing community programs and organizational commitment to reducing health disparities can help make equitable access to nutritious food a reality.

(Ethan Meth, Alice Artica, Valery Maya and Sylvia Huq also contributed to this article.)


9. Garcia, E., & King, L. (2019). Enabling technology in the food access space: A review of the literature. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 9(3), 1-16.

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