In a report released August 7, the Union of Concerned Scientists documented the positive role that increasing access to healthy food can play in disease prevention, reducing health care costs, and improving community health.

“Cardiovascular diseases in this country are a huge problem, and the heath and economic consequences of these diet-related illnesses affect all of us,” says Jeffery O’Hara, agricultural economist at the Union of Concerned Scientists and author of the report The $11 Trillion Reward: How Simple Dietary Changes Can Save Lives and Money, and How We Get There. “But by implementing innovative strategies to change farm policy making fruits and vegetables more accessible and affordable, we can reduce the incidence of these diseases. Clinicians and hospitals can help by modeling best practices to inform policy change.”

As anchor institutions within the community, hospitals and health care organizations have long been a vital resource to sustain the health of those they serve, the report notes. It found that healthcare organizations are now deepening this role by supporting the economic viability of local farms, supporting sustainable production practices through their purchases and connecting with community-based programs that provide education and access to healthy foods.

Initiatives include subsidized CSA subscriptions for low income community members, fruit and vegetable prescription programs, on-site vegetable gardens, and farmers markets with double value coupon programs. To support these initiatives, hospitals are utilizing the new IRS community benefit guidelines, which have set forth a model of prevention-based care that has hospitals fostering wellness rather than simply treating sickness.