This Month’s Food as Medicine Roundup: March 2020

Sahra Pak March 31, 2020
Sahra Pak
As a registered dietitian, Sahra brings her extensive experience in health care and public health to Lighter to improve the health of the population through effective communication, sustainable behavior modification approaches and upstream intervention strategies. Through her work with Los Angeles and Solano County Departments of Public Health, Kaiser Permanente, and partnering with health advocacy organizations such as CSPI (Center for Science in the Public Interest), Sahra has helped create sustainable food systems, adapted public policy, implemented environmental change, and health education programs.

Thank you for checking out this week’s edition of our Food as Medicine News Roundup! Once a month, I’ll share a collection of important and trending articles in the food as medicine space.

For millions of Americans, March 2020 will be forever remembered as the ‘coronavirus’ month - where all of our lives and our norms changed virtually overnight. We have transformed the way we live, work, study, play, gather, shop, cook and eat. Many of us are now meeting our colleagues on-screen, kids are being home-schooled, and shopping has become a treacherous venture for most. 

We’ve gathered pertinent news on food safety, food supply, and health during COVID-19 that may be helpful for you and your patients. Read on to find what shoppers are stocking up on and how to shop for essentials and eat safely during ‘shelter in place’ to reduce the spread of COVID-19.  


Shoppers are stocking up on disinfectants, canned goods, toilet paper...and a boatload of plant-based foods

As the news of ‘coronavirus’ (COVID-19) rolled into the U.S. around mid-March, families everywhere scrambled to buy a year’s supply (or so it seemed) of hand sanitizer, baby wipes, non-perishable goods, and most of all - toilet paper. No matter how hard we try, we may never truly know the genesis of ‘TP-mageddon.’ 

But aside from beans, chips, cookies, bread, and baking supplies flying off store shelves, plant-based products experienced a surge in sales, too. According to Nielsen, plant-based meat sales surged by 280 percent (week ending March 14) and oat milk sales increased by a whopping 477 percent. Perhaps this is heading in the right direction - according to a new study by IDTechEx, if we continue to produce meat at our current pace, it will require a 70% increase in global food production which will be unsustainable and detrimental to the environment. 

What’s more, a recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health found that adults who swapped 100 calories worth (5 percent of daily calories) of animal-based meat a day with protein from plants were 29 percent less likely to die of coronary heart disease and lowered their risk of death by 50 percent. Although positive health benefits were observed most for those who consumed a larger amount of high-quality plant-based foods (such as whole grains, beans, nuts, fruits, and vegetables), plant-based meat alternatives can support patients who may need an attainable and sustainable dietary change.   

“On average, Americans eat approximately 3.5 servings of red meat each week, and about one-third have red meat daily. Our findings suggest that even partial replacement of red meat with healthy, plant-based sources of protein could substantially reduce rates of coronary heart disease in the United States.”

⏤ Laila Al-Shaar, Ph.D., Lead study author

Food shopping and food safety in the age of COVID-19 

The new norm in all of our lives today is - social distancing. The Centers for Disease Prevention (CDC) defines social distancing as “remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet) from others when possible.” So how does one safely shop for groceries or support local farmers’ markets? Nutritious meals are key to keeping our immune systems strong - so how do we navigate food shopping, cooking, and eating during this time? 

Some say the answer is getting our groceries delivered as the average daily downloads of some grocery delivery apps increased by 218 percent between February to mid-March. 


In terms of food safety and infection concerns, experts say that food or food packages may carry COVID-19 but the risk of transmission is extremely low. Using touch-free and cashless transactions and asking for the delivery items to be left at the door may help. 

"While it's possible that the virus gets deposited [on packaging] we have no indication from epidemiology or the literature that this is a risk factor for Covid-19 or other respiratory illnesses...even with the millions of cases of influenza each year, packaging isn't something we talk about."

⏤ Benjamin Chapman, Ph.D., Food Safety Specialist, NC State University

Although grocery delivery and takeout may be the way of life for some time in the U.S., we should also pay attention to our local food economy. Researchers fear that the total loss to the economy may be close to $1.32 billion (between March to May) if we don’t mitigate the harmful impacts of COVID-19 on farmers who sell across various key markets such as farmers’ markets, farm to school, restaurants, and institutions. 

Some states have ruled farmers’ markets as providing ‘essential services’ just like grocery stores, banks, and pharmacies. And most produce at the farmers’ markets are handled a lot less than items at the grocery store. Together we can keep our food system, our bodies, and our patients healthy by taking an interest in where our food comes from.  

“Most commodity farms have access to a whole host of different safety net programs and emergency programs. But there really is very little [safety net] available to the type of farm that selling at farmers’ markets, restaurants, and schools. If the unique needs small farmers selling direct to consumers aren’t considered, this could be a moment that we look back on years from now as a crippling blow to farmers’ markets and local food in general.”

⏤Wes King, senior policy specialist, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

Food is life. Food is precious. Farmers are a vital part of our food economy, system, and community resilience. As we navigate through this uncharted territory we hope that you and your patients will not only survive but thrive by shopping, cooking, and eating fresh food grown by our farmers and groceries delivered by those who are braving the country’s lockdown. 

Stay safe and well.