A local food and nutrition program is trying to prove that its service is worth recognition from insurance companies and other groups that pay for health care.

MANNA is a Philadelphia nonprofit group that provides home-delivered meals to those living with chronic illness. Executive director Sue Daugherty says program dietitians work closely with chefs to create menus based on nutrition science.

The meals are free to clients, which leaves MANNA staffers to do lots of fundraising and grant writing to keep the program afloat.

"We really believe we are part of the health-care system," Daugherty said. "Why can't we get a seat at the table? Why can't we get into the hospitals, why can't we get into the health-care systems and the insurance companies and get them to buy into us?"

To help make that case, MANNA launched a small, pilot study to measure the program's influence on health spending. Researchers culled through the billing records of a local managed-care organization and found big differences.

Among patients with HIV/AIDS, the average monthly health-care cost was $16,765 for MANNA clients. The average health-care cost for the comparison group was $37,287.

The researchers also looked back at health spending before patients joined the program.

For MANNA clients with HIV/AIDS, average monthly health-care costs fell more than 80 percent in the first three months after beginning service, the study found.

Daugherty said people with HIV and AIDS are living longer, but the medications they need often come with spiked risks for high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

"As a connection to that, people with HIV/AIDS develop heart disease, they develop liver disease, so diet and nutrition education is critical to prevent that as much as possible, so we can really limit the side effects of the medication," she said.

Jill Gurvey is research director at OMG Center for Collaborative Learning. Her group managed the study of health spending and MANNA's services.

Gurvey and MANNA executives believe the program's support and education helped clients meet basic needs.

"Now, can we say that for certain with 65 people? No, of course not, but I think this correlation should grab people's attention," Gurvey said.

The study is unpublished research funded by MANNA.