Manausha Russ

Food and recipes delivered to Manausha Russ during and after her pregnancy with her youngest daughter Aliza Lewis provided healthier food choices for the mother and her family.

A collaboration between SSM Health DePaul Hospital and Operation Food Search connects obstetrics patients in the St. Louis area with nutritious food and other necessities to promote healthy pregnancies and improve birth outcomes for mothers and babies.

Research shows that food insecurity during pregnancy is associated with the development of gestational diabetes, vitamin deficiencies, and higher levels of stress and depression. Babies born to food-insecure mothers are more likely to exhibit low birth weight, birth defects, and developmental delays.

Carolyn Pryor, M.D., is director of maternal services for SSM Health St. Louis and medical director of the OB Care Center. She said food insecurity is a common problem for many of her prenatal patients, and her goal is to give all mothers and babies the best possible start.

“Many of my patients do not have enough food to eat,” Pryor said. “They may lack transportation to and from appointments, lack support from family and friends, and have high levels of stress in their lives. These social issues can lead to negative outcomes like preterm birth and depression.”

Operation Food Search seized an opportunity that aligns with its mission.

“Pregnancy and the postpartum period are critical times for women to receive the best nutrition available for both themselves and their babies,” said Lucinda Perry, director of Strategic Initiatives at Operation Food Search. “Fresh Rx is the perfect opportunity for our agency to make a difference in their lives by ensuring the healthiest start for everyone involved.”

During prenatal appointments, women at OB Care Center are screened for food insecurity. Those who qualify are enrolled into Fresh Rx: Nourishing Healthy Starts to receive weekly portions of local protein, dairy, grain and produce for the entire household, which comes from Fair Shares CCSA and its network of 80 local farmers. This continues throughout the pregnancy and a couple of months after the baby is born.

The Fresh Rx program introduced Manausha Russ and her children (ages 4, 5 and 6) to foods they would not have tried otherwise.

“They’ll have a jar of tomatoes, black beans, beets, Asian pears, spaghetti squash, different types of bread, like pita bread – normally stuff I probably wouldn’t buy on a regular basis,” Russ said. “One time when I was cooking, they were like, ‘Uuhn, what’s that?’ But when they actually tried it out, they were like, ‘Oh, this is good – we never had that before.’”

Mothers receive one-on-one nutrition consultations with a dietitian; in-home and online nutrition and cooking tutorials from a chef; and culinary skills and nutrition classes, including an interactive grocery store tour where participants learn how to be savvy shoppers.

Russ said cooking class is “bonding more with my family. It’s like a lot of stuff I can teach to my girls and just be like one-on-one with them in the kitchen, just learning nutritional, healthy facts.”

She admitted, “It’s a lot,” but said she felt much healthier during this pregnancy than the previous two. “I didn’t know a lot of stuff that they helped me with,” she said.

A licensed clinical social worker meets with patients on site at the OB Care Center to assess family needs and identify additional resources available in the community.

“Getting the kids’ Christmas stuff was really good, and also they helped me get them coats and things like that,” Russ said.

The program has helped patients gain housing, employment, financial counseling, mental health counseling, diaper assistance, baby necessities, winter coats – even a refrigerator. It is all the result of exploring creative and innovative approaches to best serve families that are struggling with food hardship.

“It is just really convenient for the simple fact that they come to your door – you don’t have to do so much and it’s not much of a hassle,” Russ said. “Also, they’ll put recipes in the bag. They help you meal-plan and the prep – they’ll have it all in the bag written up for you.”

That is by design.

“Our goal is to help reduce the stress in our families lives and take food insecurity off the table,” Jennie Oberkrom, manager of clinical integration for Operation Food Search, said. “We believe this will lead to better birth outcomes.”

Operation Food Search officially launched Fresh Rx: Nourishing Healthy Starts on January 31. Primary partners include Fair Shares Combined Community Supported Agriculture and the OB Care Center at SSM Health DePaul Hospital St. Louis. It is funded in party by a four-year grant from Bayer’s Monsanto Fund. Other project funders include Anthem Foundation, Episcopal Presbyterian Health Trust, and Wallace Center at Winrock International. 

For more information, call 314-726-5355 or browse www.ofsfreshrx.org.

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