The announcement itself is brief, stating only that the new CEO, Paul Hepfer, M.S., will be “instrumental in continuing to leverage and expand Project Open Hand’s relationships with government partners, health plans and providers, private funders, donors and volunteers.”
But it also puts the spotlight on the many initiatives the San Francisco-based organization has kicked off in the last few years to raise awareness around the larger role food needs to play in healthcare — particularly for underserved individuals.
POH specifically targets critically ill and vulnerable populations in the Bay Area. That includes those in need living with conditions like AIDS/HIV, diabetes, and cancer, as well as elderly and disabled people who don’t necessarily have access to healthy food. The organization started in 1985 as a grassroots response to the AIDs crisis, tackling the negative effects of malnutrition on terminally ill individuals. It has since expanded to include several different initiatives around getting people what it calls “medically tailored meals” — that is, meals built around the specific conditions, medications, and side effects that come with chronic illness.
According to the organization’s site, POH serves over 2,500 meals per day to seniors and persons with disabilities around San Francisco via its Community Nutrition Program, and POH claims access to these meals can lower risk of disease and cognitive decline. Those 60 years and over who are San Francisco residents, and those diagnosed with a disability, can apply. Upon acceptance, they receive hot meals free of charge at one of the participating San Francisco locations.
But it’s the organization’s Wellness Program that gives us a good look at where the food-as-medicine movement is headed. Those individuals who qualify (according to this list) can sign up for the program and get medically tailored meals as well as groceries, both for pickup or delivery. Nutrition counseling is also part of the package. The Wellness Program is different from the Nutrition Program in that it specifically targets those individuals living with illness and disease, including cancer, lupus, diabetes, and HIV/AIDs, among others.
Though it can be easy to be skeptical of the so-called wellness movement, POH has partnered with a number of different researchers, scientists, other not-for-profit groups, and government departments to back up its offerings. It’s also a founding member of the Food is Medicine Coalition, a volunteer association of nonprofit, medically-tailored and nutrition services. It has worked with University of California, San Francisco, to publish data on the health benefits of food as medicine, and the aforementioned Adults With Disabilities meal program is completely funded by The SF Department of Aging and Adult Services (DAAS).
To be clear: POH isn’t telling anyone to ditch their meds in favor of kale. But a growing number of companies, organizations, and government sectors are grasping onto the idea of proper nutrition as preventative care when it comes to illness and disease.
And even those with disposable income who don’t need outside assistance can benefit from the food-as-medicine movement, and the most common way to do that as of right now is through the food-as-medicine sector of the meal kits market. Yes, it will require picking through and bypassing meal delivery plans that seem to care more about your Instagram feed than your health.
But don’t dismay: there are numerous options out there that would qualify as medicinal meal kits. Be Well Eats delivers meal kits to your door compiled by a team of certified nutritionists and holistic health coaches, and led by celebrity chef Tricia Williams and NYC-based Dr. Frank Lipman. Meanwhile, over in Los Angeles, the Phood Farmacy operates a virtual kitchen that delivers “preventative” and “healing” foods to Angelenos.
While both those options would be out of reach financially for POH’s demographic, it’s encouraging to see efforts being made up across the spectrum towards making food a bigger part of the healthcare discussion. Ideally we would one day see a grassroots initiative like Food as Medicine teaming with these higher-end meal kit companies to deliver to a wider swath of the population. Perhaps part of Hepfer’s plans as CEO of POH will include finding ways for non-profits to team up with more consumer-focused companies to make healthier eating easier for all.