MANNA’s Meal-Program Study Gets Medical Journal Backing

Attention, medical community: The Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance’s pilot study, which looked at the health-producing benefits of its meal program, was recently published in The Journal of Primary Care and Community Health, lending the organization and its work new credibility in the medical world. The study could change everything—or at least the way we treat the very sick.

Here’s why: For over 20 years, MANNA has understood the importance of good, nutritious food. Their bustling state-of-the-art Center City kitchen provides 65,000 free meals per month to clients with serious medical conditions such as HIV/AIDS, renal insufficiency, cancer and diabetes that are tailored to each person’s complex medical needs. Now, they believe, it’s about time that everyone caught up.

Armed with the powerful results from their newly published study, they now have the numbers to prove that their methods work, a game changer in a field where evidence-based practice is everything. Relative to the comparison group, MANNA clients’ average monthly health costs were $13,000 less, they had half the number of hospital visits, and when they were admitted to the hospital their length of stay was 37 percent shorter. The results are clear- on a number of different measures that MANNA clients have lower healthcare costs. In the long run, this means that patients that receive meals from MANNA will save hospitals and insurers some major dough.

This is exactly the Aha! moment that Sue Daugherty, MANNA’s executive director, is hoping that the medical community will have once they see get a hold of the study. “We want to be recognized as an integral part of treatment,” she says. “One day I would like to see special diets being prescribed to sick patients, just like pills are right now.” A nice idea, sure, but is it realistic to think that in the near future food will be used as medicine?

Yes, actually, it is, according to Blair Weikert, an infectious disease specialist at HUP. “The study confirms what many doctors have already seen clinically: patients that have access to good foods tend to have better clinical outcomes,” he says. “But it makes a huge difference to the medical community to have research backing this up.” The study, it seems, could be the first step toward opening the door to insurance-company reimbursements and greater partnerships with hospitals. This means less dependancy on fundraising and more clients; Daugherty says her organization could serve up to three times as many people as they are serving now if they had the interest.

MANNA is already receiving national recognition for its dietary programs: Staffers have recently been asked to speak at two major conferences, the Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo and the American Public Health Association Expo, both this upcoming year. The organization currently has 11 different meal plans, and all combinations in between, that focus on the unique nutritional needs associated with each person’s disease. For example, dialysis clients who are at higher risk of overdosing on potassium are given meals that restrict the mineral. And in case you were wondering, the food is really good, too. MANNA chef Keith Lucas, who once appeared on the Food Network’s Chopped, cooks up some mean meals like a grilled chicken sandwich with an eggplant and veggie side salad. The best part is that it’s all free and anyone can qualify, regardless of socioeconomic status.

The nourishment that MANNA provides is a lifeline to its sick patients who are usually too ill to find energy to cook for themselves. Leonardo, a client who received meals from MANNA for seven years, credits his life to the organization. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for MANNA,” he says. “I feel truly blessed.”