Chicago's Food Rx provides prescription for healthy eating

CHICAGO — The University of Chicago Medicine and Walgreens are teaming up to launch a "Food Rx" initiative that will help people with diabetes improve their eating habits by overcoming two major hurdles when shopping for food: access and affordability, the groups announced Aug. 15.

As part of the Improving Diabetes Care and Outcomes on the South Side of Chicago, a project based at the University of Chicago Medicine, diabetes patients who visit 1-of-6 South Side clinics can receive a prescription-like checklist of their doctors' food recommendations and a coupon for $5 off $20 worth of healthy food at participating Walgreens locations. Patients also can get a $3 voucher for the weekly 61st Street Farmers Market in the Woodlawn neighborhood.

"The factors driving the diabetes prevalence rate on the South Side are multifaceted, and addressing them requires a comprehensive, nuanced approach," stated Monica Peek, lead on the Food Rx initiative and associate director of the Chicago Center for Diabetes Translation Research. "Many of the patients we see have challenges accessing and preparing healthy food. Through continued education and initiatives like this one, we’re working to chip away at the obstacles and alter behaviors."

The Food Rx initiative builds on the Improving Diabetes Care and Outcomes on the South Side of Chicago interventions already under way, including patient education, grocery store tours, tools for healthcare providers, improvements to clinic systems and relationships with community organizations such as food pantries.

Food Rx organizers reported that the participating clinics are natural collaborators in this effort because they already serve the target population, and Walgreens has made a commitment to provide greater access to fresh fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products and whole grains in food desert communities.

These types of partnerships do more than just create a halo effect for Walgreens — they have a potential to make a real impact on patient outcomes.

According to the Institute for Alternative Futures' diabetes model estimates for the Chicago metropolitan statistical area, people living with diabetes (both diagnosed and undiagnosed) will increase by 46% by 2025 to 1.7 million people from a 2010 base of 1.1 million. The resulting medical and societal cost of diabetes will be $15.9 billion, a 54% increase from 2010.

Here is how the IAF projections break down across the Chicago MSA:

  • Number of people with prediabetes in 2010 totaled 2.5 million; in 2025, that will reach 2.6 million;
  • Diagnosed diabetes cases in 2010 totaled 711,800; in 2025, that will reach 1.2 million;
  • Undiagnosed diabetes cases in 2010 totaled 420,800; in 2025, that will reach 449,100;
  • Visual impairment associated with diabetes totaled 128,800 in 2010; in 2025, that will reach 207,300; and
  • Annual deaths attributable to diabetes totaled 10,340 in 2010; in 2025, that will reach 13,740.

"If 50% of people with prediabetes successfully made these lifestyle changes, [including modest weight loss and increase in regular physical activity], it could reduce the number of new cases of diabetes in the Chicago MSA by about 10,400 a year," the IAF said. "Between [2010] and 2025, that would be a reduction of about 135,600 people with diabetes with a cumulative savings of about $8.6 billion."

IAF continued: "Halting the 'twin epidemics' of diabetes and obesity will require fundamental change in all segments of society, including greater access to opportunities for physical activity in our schools, workplaces and communities, and a signficant shift in the American diet away from sugar, salt, refined carbohydrates and saturated fats and toward more fruits and vegetables."

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