Food is the Best Medicine

A community partnership that’s addressing food insecurity for postpartum patients at ASMCA

As The Seton Fund embarks on its Women First campaign to support the new women’s tower currently being built at Ascension Seton Medical Center Austin (ASMCA), we are excited to raise funds for the Food is the Best Medicine (FBM) program – a much-needed service for our birthing and postpartum patients.

Philanthropic dollars from generous individuals, perinatal endowments, and aligned corporate/family foundations are being used to fund the FBM program. We are grateful to everyone who recognizes the value of inclusive, dignified access to healthy food for vulnerable communities, particularly as it relates to improving overall health.

The Food is the Best Medicine (FBM) program was established by the Ascension Texas Council on Racial and Health Equity in response to the alarming rate of maternal deaths in Central Texas and the high rate of severe maternal morbidity cases, both of which are exacerbated by the barriers to healthy food access experienced by minority populations. Approx. 1 in 8 Texans (1.4 million households) experience food insecurity – one of just nine states with higher food insecurity than the national average.

Postnatal maternal food insecurity is positively correlated with poorer maternal mental health, lower rates of breastfeeding, and an increased risk of newborn and infant hospital visits. During the postnatal period, there’s an essential need for adequate intake of nutrient and caloric dense foods for optimal maternal healing.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only increased food insecurity, especially among households with children, Black and Hispanic households, and low-income households. In Texas, for every 1% increase in food insecurity, annual healthcare costs increase by $400 million dollars. Ascension Seton continues to advocate for healthier communities, with a focus on providing equitable healthcare to those who need it most.

In Central Texas, 5,000-5,500 babies are born each year at ASMCA, a Level 4 maternal high-risk hospital caring for the most complex maternal cases. Fifty percent of patients who deliver babies at ASMCA are un- and/or under-insured. 

Through a collaborative partnership with Farmshare Austin (Farmshare), The Cook’s Nook (TCN), and The Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at the UTHealth, ASMCA birthing patients who identify as food insecure can enroll in the FBM program, where they receive nutritious meals and fresh foods during the critical 8-week postpartum period.  The overarching goal of the Food is the Best Medicine Program is to decrease food insecurity among women who have recently given birth at ASMCA. Additional goals are to increase healthy eating (fruits and vegetables) and increase health outcomes among postpartum patients and their newborns.

During the 8-week intervention, participants receive the equivalent of 120 meals. Food provision includes a combination of fully cooked and prepared meals that postpartum patients simply reheat; prepped vegetables and grain-forward meal kits; and a produce and pantry staples box. TCN’s meals and meal kits are convenient, culturally relevant and align with the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Farmshare’s produce and pantry staples boxes are farmers’ market quality produce, which postpartum patients can customize each week to meet their needs and preferences. Weekly food provisions are delivered directly to a family’s home, which addresses problems related to transportation access or fuel affordability.

The Cook’s Nook is a leading developer and distributor of fresh, nutritious, and culturally relevant meals that address food insecurity and chronic disease. To do this, they work with their customers to design programs that lead to improved health and economic outcomes by providing vulnerable populations access to quality nutrition with dignity and choice.

Farmshare Austin is a nonprofit organization that has a mission to grow a healthy, just and equitable local food system by increasing community food access and cultivating new farmers. Farmshare builds bridges between the produce grown on their 10-acre certified organic farm and food access programs reaching food insecure communities in Central Texas.

For some patients who may be reluctant to share personal information and commit to an 8-week intervention, yet still need food assistance, ASMCA social workers provide a $100 H-E-B grocery store gift card and healthy eating educational materials upon discharge. The gift cards address immediate food insecurity needs, while respecting the privacy of some of our most vulnerable patients.

ASMCA, TCN, and Farmshare are working with The Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at the UTHealth to evaluate the FBM program. All birthing patients are assessed for food insecurity upon admission to ASMCA. The program will collect outcome data and process data to measure the impact of the intervention and whether participants report lower levels of food insecurity, greater consumption of fruits and vegetables, and improved health outcomes.

Prior to the above partnerships with community organizations, The Seton Fund worked with the University of Texas at Austin RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service and its UT CONNECT Program. Through this program, a graduate Fellow was matched with the FBM program to develop methods for evaluating the pilot phase and identifying ways to expand support for more Central Texas families. This led to collaborative discussions with TCN, Farmshare and UTHealth.

Like The Seton Fund, all partners in this program are committed to serving our community members with the greatest needs and least resources. Funding to support the Food is the Best Medicine Program will ensure postpartum patients experiencing food insecurity will have access to nutritious and healthy foods. This aids maternal healing, and could help mothers sustain breastfeeding for their newborn, in addition to reducing the physiological, emotional, and mental effects of stress caused by food insecurity.

To learn more about ways to support the Food is the Best Medicine Program, please contact Victoria Threadgould at the Seton Fund, or Dr. Elizabeth Polinard, Chair of the Ascension Texas Council on Racial and Health Equity.

Published: March 22nd, 2023