St. Louis has the 10th highest rate of pre-term births in the country, resulting in both a huge financial cost (nearly $65,000 for medical care and subsequent services per NICU admission) and, more importantly, an increased rate of infant mortality.
Our Fresh Rx: Nourishing Healthy Starts program addresses this very serious problem in two ways: by helping low-income women improve birth outcomes and by empowering families to cultivate a healthy household. Through weekly deliveries of fresh food, nutrition education and other supportive services, Operation Food Search (OFS) is proving that treating food as medicine is an effective way to boost the health of pregnant women and their families.
“Our primary objective is to eliminate food insecurity during pregnancy to produce better birth outcomes for moms and their babies,” explains Trina Ragain, OFS Director of Policy & Innovation. “After participants are referred to the program, OFS provides them with weekly deliveries of food, in addition to cooking tutorials, nutrition resources and supportive services.” Ragain added that an OFS licensed clinical social worker coordinates with prenatal care providers and connects participants to providers in the community, such as primary care, pediatric, dental, counseling and psychiatry.
Participants are also referred to community resources, such as for employment, education, housing and baby items. An OFS registered dietitian helps participants set nutrition goals and make changes tailored to their unique health needs. Our community chef assesses ease of access to cooking tools and provides step-by-step instructions and recipes to make healthy meals for the family. OFS recently introduced new meal kits that will continue to improve the health and well-being of the families by making it even easier to prepare nutritious meals.
OFS’s partner, Fair Shares Combined Community Supported Agriculture (CCSA), has provided weekly shares of local produce, dairy, protein and grains to Fresh Rx participants since the program’s inception in September 2018. Fair Shares works with over 80 local farmers and small producers in the region, empowering both the families receiving the food and the farmers.
OFS collaborates with the OB Care Center at SSM Health DePaul Hospital to screen incoming prenatal care patients for food insecurity and refer them into Operation Food Search’s Fresh Rx: Nourishing Healthy Starts program. Enrollment will increase in early 2020 through partnerships with several of the state health insurers.
To date, 65 women have participated in the pilot program, and 35 have given birth. Ninety-seven per cent of babies have been born full-term (at least 37 weeks gestation) and 94% at a healthy birth weight (5.5 lbs or greater.)
In addition, program participants are now eating more fruits and vegetables, as well as developing cooking skills. While the focus is to improve health outcomes while reducing healthcare costs, pilot participants also report that the program has decreased the stress and social isolation resulting from difficult life circumstances.
The purpose of the Fresh Rx: Nourishing Healthy Starts program is to explore an emerging field of interest in healthcare: food as medicine. Over the next three years, the program will enroll more than 750 women, tracking health outcomes for both mother and baby, as well as healthcare expenses. The goal of the program is to contribute to the growing evidence supporting the provision of food as a medically-reimbursable service in instances where lack of access to food results in poor health outcomes. The program also aims to strengthen St. Louis’s regional food economy by utilizing foods grown by local farmers. We’re supporting the growth of healthy families and healthy, local food.