Demand rising for medically tailored home-delivered meals

February 2, 2015

ATLANTA — Sometimes Eunice Andrews tries to imagine what her life would be like had she known about the importance of healthy eating sooner. Would she still have the use of both her legs? Would she still need medication to control her diabetes and high blood pressure?

"I get depressed just thinking about it," she said recently.

Still she realizes things might be worse if it weren’t for the nutritious meals she gets every other day from Open Hand, a local non-profit that delivers medically-tailored meals to metro Atlanta’s chronically ill.

Andrews is among hundreds of thousands of chronically ill residents here and across the country driving the growing demand for the service.

According to data released early this month by a national coalition of nonprofit food and nutrition service agencies, the surge — nearly 50 percent in the last few years — at a time when more healthcare providers and doctors are starting to see the benefits food and nutrition in managing critical illnesses but at the same time are challenged with exactly how to provide that service to their patients.

"Medical nutrition is fundamental to preventing and treating chronic diseases, including obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease," said Dr. Shealynn Buck, medical director of the DeKalb Medical Wellness Center. "Food really is medicine."

Despite the surge in demand across the country, funding for home-delivered medically tailored meal services is still largely dependent on private donations.

"The benefits of medically tailored meals are clear, but the challenge right now is to better integrate these types of programs into the overall healthcare system," said Matt Pieper, executive director of Open Hand. "Too often patients battling a host of serious illnesses, such as cancer, heart disease and renal failure, are without access to any type of meals programs once they leave the hospital."

The demand for medically-tailored meals, he said, has jumped 20 percent in Atlanta area in the past three years.

"Last year, we were producing about 4,300 meals a day," Pieper said. "We’re currently up to 4,800 meals and by midyear, we project we’ll be preparing as many 5,300."

Founded in 1988, when the HIV-AIDS epidemic was raging, Open Hand has long recognized the important role nutrition plays in keeping us healthy.

After years of feeding those caught in Atlanta’s HIV-AIDS epidemic from the basement of St. Bartholomew, Pieper said the agency expanded its efforts to include seniors and others with chronic health conditions.

"It was a time when diabetes was exploding across the country and the state," he said. "Seniors living below poverty level were going blind, their organs compromised."

Pieper said the agency set out not only to elevate the nutritional standards but to help people understand the connection between healthy food and good health. It launched a nutrition education and counseling program and hired a registered dietitian, who helped design the program and ensure menus either met or exceeded standards set by the American Diabetes Association, American Heart Association and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

To meet the need, Open Hand launched Good Measure Meals, expanding access to healthy gourmet meals to the paying public and diverting 100 percent of the proceeds directly to supporting the non-profits’ charitable mission.

"Through philanthropic fundraising, the revenue we generate from Good Measure Meals as well as contracts that we have with community-based and government agencies, we have become one of the largest community-based nutrition agencies in the country," Pieper said. "We’ve been growing as the community’s needs have grown."

The goal is to produce meals that have balanced macro-nutrients, meaning the optimal ratio of health-promoting carbohydrates, protein, and fat — the three energy sources that our bodies need to survive. Nearly all of the meals are made in-house in order to limit preservatives that typically increase sodium and sugar content in the foods we eat.

"Through hours and hours and years of work, we’ve developed a variety of menu plans that meet the needs of a multitude of people," Pieper said.

In addition to providing healthy meals, dietitians facilitate fun, interactive community workshops about the importance of healthy food and help clients establish attainable goals like weight loss or remaining independent.

"Chronic disease is the leading cause of death in this country, and if we don’t make effort to improve nutritional standards, we’re only contributing to our healthcare challenges," Pieper said.

Last year, in an effort to achieve better outcomes for their patients, Open Hand began offering healthy meals and nutrition therapy and counseling to clinic partners such as AID Atlanta, DeKalb Medical and Emory Midtown.

Andrews, a 66-year-old amputee, was a patient at DeKalb Medical when she found out about Open Hand.

On a recent Wednesday, volunteers delivered a breakfast of chicken sausage with banana bread and a pear and baked chicken breast with spinach and pumpkin custard for dinner.

"They are always very wholesome meals," Andrews said. "I enjoy them plus they help a lot because 90 percent of the meals are exactly what I need. I don’t know what I would do if it weren’t for Open Hands."

In addition to the meals, Andrews receives nutrition counseling so that on the days the meals aren’t delivered she can still create healthy meals and cook them with the help of an aide who comes to her home.

She strays sometimes, she admits, so she still has to take medication.

"My blood pressure is excellent but my diabetes is another subject," she said. "When I eat just what they send, my sugar is fine."

By offering a medically-tailored meal program, Buck said that hospitals are bridging the gap between when the patients is discharged from the hospital and returns homes.

"Instead of chronic-disease patients having to figure out how to get the meals, we’re partnering with Open Hand to connect the dots for them," she said.



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