Unlocking Food as Medicine Studies: Announcing the ThriveMarket & ProofPilot Partnership

Hippocrates in 400BC: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Americans could drop their annual health-care costs by a third via better food choices according to a 2007 paper published in the Journal of Health Affairs.

That’s why ProofPilot is excited today to announce a partnership with Thrive Market, the fast growing natural goods store delivering the world’s highest quality organic groceries and non-toxic products directly to a customer’s door. Through ProofPilot, hospitals, social service agencies and other groups with a mission to improve health can integrate Thrive Market, and it’s carefully curated products, into research studies.

“One out of every three Medicare dollars is spent on diabetes and heart disease. Strokes cost taxpayers more than $1 billion every day. We spend $190 billion dollars each year on obesity. These are all diseases that are caused or exacerbated by lifestyle choices,” says Griffin Bower, Director, Social Impact and Strategic Communications at Thrive Market.

“We know from a landmark study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2002 that lifestyle changes, including a better diet, are substantially more effective, for example, at preventing pre-diabetes from becoming diabetes than leading pharmaceuticals,” continues Dr. Jasper Schmidt, Chief Medical Advisor at ProofPilot and practicing ER physician.

So why aren’t we seeing more food as medicine programs? We operate within a dollars and cents environment where consumers and institutions alike want to make sure money spent is on treatments and programs that work. In fact, Between 2004 and 2014, one-hundred laws were passed in 42 states to encourage public funding be prioritized to “evidence-based practices and treatments.”

That evidence is created via research studies and scientific evaluations. The US National Institutes of Health, the largest research funder in the world, reported grant award rates dropped by more than half between 2008 and 2016. More recently, President Trump’s suggested budget cuts CDC research funding by almost 40%.

“Right now, a large portion of the NIH budget is awarded to highly experimental fields like genomics, a field of study that has yet to reap dramatic benefits to public health,” says University of Kentucky researcher Richard Crosby who runs the National Rural Cancer Prevention Center. “Pushing science forward is important. However, this over-investment has come at the price of missed opportunities in disease prevention in HIV, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease that we know are highly preventable with lifestyle changes,” he continues.

The Thrive ProofPilot partnership puts control in the hands of local innovators. In the rare cases studies to show the potential of programs and initiatives are done, it is by outside professionals who have limited connections with the local community. The results aren’t seen as applicable or relevant. The kinds of studies made possible by ProofPilot and the Thrive Market partnership might take a traditional research organization years and hundreds of thousands of dollars — if they are done at all. These costs and timeframes are simply unrealistic for all but the biggest most well funded organizations. ProofPilot provides tools that quickly and cheaply turn pilots and evaluation into information. That information can be used to grow programs that work, and make improvements to those that don’t.

The ProofPilot Thrive Market partnership will initially focus on lifestyle change programs and classes that include a dietary change element. “It’s not as simple as saying, ‘make good food choices,’” says Amsden. “It’s also about finding ways to support and encourage those choices, teaching people what good food choices are and how to prepare and enjoy those choices.”

Eventually the ProofPilot/Thrive partnership will expand to studies on specific impacts of certain food products with ProofPilot’s hospital and academic partners.

Lake County, California, less than three hours north of San Francisco, has the lowest median household income in that state. Socio-economic determinants of health contribute to pressing health issues for many residents. North Coast Opportunities, Inc. (NCO) runs a six-week program called WellnessRX. The program provides classes on healthy lifestyles, including nutrition, stress management, and moderate physical activity, as a way to improve health. Participants also receive a $60 membership to Thrive Market and $100 in groceries credits to spend as they choose. “Residents in rural areas like Lake County don’t have access to health-food stores and even if they did, it’s unaffordable,” said Lake County wellness consultant Susan Reed. “With a study on ProofPilot, we hope to gain insight that can be leveraged to improve the health of Lake County citizens, and others around the country.”

Participants in NorthCoat Opportunty’s WellnessRX program complete study tasks on ProofPilot and receive grocery credits. Via the study, purchase behavior will be analyzed to assess changes in behavior and correlated with histories of trauma.

In Farmington, New Mexico, Totah Behavioral Health provides substance abuse treatment to many individuals of Navajo decent. Totah is running several studies on ProofPilot. One evaluates the impact of regular cooking classes and online grocery credits from Thrive among those receiving substance use treatment. “We want our patients to be healthy and self-sufficient after they leave treatment at Totah,” says Kristine Carlson. “ If online online grocery credits work in our very rural environment, it’s an extremely useful life skill. We can use the results to make a case for resources to pay for grocery credits now that avoid expensive healthcare costs later.”

Prevalence of obesity is almost 20% higher among rural adults compared to urban adults when controlling for demographic, diet, and physical activity variables. Residents in 20 percent of rural counties live more than 10 miles from a supermarket. For every additional supermarket close by, healthy food consumption increases by as much as 32 percent.

“At Thrive Market we’re focused on eliminating barriers that hold people back from accessing healthy food,” says Bower, “If we are able to support and incentivize innovations that help people adopt better nutrition behaviors, not only do we have an exciting opportunity to potentially improve people’s lives but also to drive significant cost reduction from medical intervention.”

“While we’re a small community, we still compete for grant funding with places like New York, which is more than 300 times our size”, says Patty Hamilton, Director of Public Health and Community Services in Bangor, Maine. According to the CDC, Bangor has one of the highest obesity rates in the Northeast. “New York is an entirely different environment. We really have to be innovative to stand out. We need to show that our ideas have promising potential.” The Bangor area is running a variety of studies, some of which examine the impact of food choices on health. For those programs that work, Bangor will use data to convince funders to expand and extend the programs.

“It’s my responsibility as an elected official to make sure tax dollars spent have the maximum positive impact on the community,” says John Duran, Mayor of West Hollywood, California, a community that innovated from the ground up, when existing leadership failed to fight the HIV epidemic in the 1980s. Duran advises ProofPilot on how study results can be better formatted and presented for policy change. “A 10-year-old evaluation from an academic in a completely different environment isn’t all that persuasive. Our culture and policies change too fast. Every community is different. But, when I see current data from small pilot programs within West Hollywood, that makes it much easier to allocate resources to expand and scale promising initiatives.”

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