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Blog

What If We Could Prescribe Food as Medicine?

Nov 02 2016

Imagine walking into a pharmacy that looks more like a farmer's market, the open shelves stocked with vegetables, roots, and herbs. And instead of a dull waiting room there are interactive cooking classes and food sampling stations. Imagine a future in which food is seen as medicine.

When we were invited to create a booth for the American Academy of Pediatrics conference, we had two weeks and limited resources. We sat down, sketched out a floor plan, and had lively discussions about how to bring families’ everyday struggles with healthy food to life.

It’s our nature to be makers, so we jumped into the prototyping shop with scrap wood, some cardboard, hot glue, and some farmer’s market produce. As we would soon learn, this was not the typical way one builds a booth for a conference like this.

But the important thing wasn’t the level of production, it was the message: healthcare has a huge opportunity to lead the conversation about food and health in a way that is compelling and accessible for everyone. What if doctors could prescribe food as part of a therapeutic care plan and make it possible for families to access food that will keep their loved ones well? What if we reimagined nutrition education with hands-on learning that emphasizes the joy of food rather than the restrictive messaging often associated with food and health? How could we transform healthcare and communities by promoting food as medicine?

Together with our collaborators—led by Supervisor Wilma Chan and her “ALL IN” Alameda County initiative to end poverty and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland along with Alameda County Public Health Department, Alameda County Community Food Bank and Dig Deep Farms—we synthesized input from doctors, nutritionists, policy makers, hospital administrators, and public health workers to create a vision of how people might use a Food Pharmacy. Through illustrations and personal stories we brought our collective vision to life, gave it a name, and designed recipes and cooking tools for our booth.  

Food As Medicine 2

Our handmade booth with its bright colors and fresh produce stood out in the towering sea of sleek glowing structures. The focal point was a cornucopia of fresh fruits and vegetables, like kale, eggplant, imperfect apples, pumpkins, bananas, and hefty carrots still a bit dirty from the farm, all spilling out in an exuberant mess. It didn’t matter that we hacked together IKEA furniture and used leftover wood for the booth frame. It was rough. It was real. It matched our message that health care needs to meet people where they are. And because of this, it was a hit.

Some of the most pressing human-centered innovations—especially as they relate to health and food—can be prototyped in a much more humble way. Sometimes all it takes is an enthusiastic and collaborative team, a couple of glue guns, a pile of vegetables, and some imagination.

Food As Medicine 1

If you’re interested in joining the conversation, get in touch with us at vbarad@ideo.com.

  • Vivian Barad

    Portfolio Director, IDEO San Francisco
    Vivian focuses on helping clients find new business opportunities as well as developing brands that let people enjoy healthier and better food, beverage products, and experiences. She spends a lot of time thinking about the intersection of food and health — from personal health to the health of the environment.
  • Rita Nguyen, MD

    Physician in Residence, IDEO San Francisco
    By innovating at the intersection of food, health, and design, Rita is committed to exploring creative solutions for the pressing health issues of our time. Rita is an Assistant Clinical Professor at UCSF, Medical Director of Healthy Food Initiatives at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, and a former Civic Innovation Fellow at the Stanford d.school.
  • Rachel Maloney

    Environments Designer, IDEO San Francisco
    For the past nine years, Rachel has focused on food and beverage service design for one-off restaurants as well as master planning for campus-wide food service. As an interior designer, she has worked with high-end hospitality brands to corporate tech giants, conceptualizing spaces and food concepts that rethink how we interact with food. She’s passionate about eating and cooking, and wishes she had Anthony Bourdain’s job.

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