For hospitals, preventing illness is now as big a priority as treating it. A new provision in the federal farm law could help by encouraging hospitals to team up with other organizations to increase access to healthful foods.

"In the past, policymakers built a brick wall between food policy and health policy as though diets don't affect health outcomes," Jeffrey O'Hara said last week. "With the passage of the farm bill, new policies are breaking down the wall so food and health policy can work together — and save a lot of money in the process."

O'Hara is an agricultural economist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, which, along with the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, issued a fact sheet explaining the new provisions.

The fact sheet, "Hospitals & Healthy Food," points out that half of U.S. adults have one or more chronic conditions, such as heart disease, obesity or cancer, that may be preventable or ameliorated through a more healthful diet. Unfortunately, most Americans eat half of the federally recommended amount of fruits and vegetables and many lack access to or the money to pay for healthful food.

The farm bill establishes the Food Insecurity Nutrition Program. Under FINI, which is expected to get started this fall, the Department of Agriculture will provide grants to organizations seeking to boost purchases of fruits and vegetables by low-income consumers. The grants increase the value of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — SNAP — benefits for people buying those items.

Organizations applying for FINI grants will be required to secure matching funding from other sources. "For hospitals, health centers and insurers aiming to reduce diet-related disease in their communities, partnering with healthy food organizations to apply for FINI funds is a great place to start," says O'Hara and his fact sheet co-author Anne Palmer, program director with the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

O'Hara and Palmer raise another intriguing consideration. Prior to the Accountable Care Act, nonprofit hospitals earmarked most of their community benefit expenditures for subsidized patient care. "However, since the number of uninsured patients is anticipated to decline under the ACA, supporting a FINI application will be a strategic way to address diet-related challenges and meet the community benefit requirement."