Food is medicine: Improving maternal health outcomes with nutrition

Identifying solutions to help improve maternal health care outcomes continues to be a crucial issue in the United States, especially as challenges around inequity persist. In Kansas, the preterm birthrate in the state has been steadily increasing, from 8.7 in 2014 to 10.5 in 2022, according to the March of Dimes. On top of that, the preterm birth rate for Black babies in the state is 1.4 times higher than for all other babies.

There are many interconnected ways to help resolve these issues, but nutrition, a crucial component for a healthy pregnancy, can often be a good place to start. Poor nutrition can lead to low birth weight, and even an increased risk of chronic health conditions later in life.

The UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Kansas is working to eliminate barriers to healthy food for members who are pregnant. Since January, the health plan has partnered with Attane Health to deliver food to 600 to 800 high-risk mothers in the state, during their third trimester. These members are located in both rural and urban areas of the state, where food deserts can be an issue.

The program also includes three visits with a nutrition coach, including both prenatal and postpartum visits. This support is part of a holistic effort to assist mothers and their babies with guidance, encouragement and empowerment – giving them the tools to take charge of their own nutritional health. Nutrition coaches are the connective tissue between the food deliveries and the overall health of the mother and baby. The UnitedHealthcare benefit covers last trimester and one-month post-partum. A local foundation, Health Forward Foundation, provides funds to extend the benefit to 3 months post-partum and covers the cost of the nutritional coaching sessions.

“Your body will deplete resources to feed the baby,” said Patricia Fox, maternal high-risk registered nurse and case manager for the UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Kansas. “And we feel like, especially in the third trimester, if we can decrease that gap — we can perhaps decrease pre-term delivery.”

Patricia also notes that postpartum nutrition is extremely important, especially with breastfeeding.

Members receive $145 of credit that is auto-applied online at checkout and redeemed once per month through the Attane Health website. The food, which includes organic and natural items, is shipped quickly and delivered right to their door.

“You are in charge of your health — you should be in charge of how you want that to be,” Patricia said.

For one member who had preeclampsia with a previous pregnancy, a condition that includes high blood pressure and possible organ damage, a blood pressure monitor was required for her second pregnancy. After going through the program that helped her understand the best foods for her condition, she delivered a healthy baby without having to go to the NICU, Patricia said.

Connecting mothers like this one has been personally gratifying, Patricia said, and has shown the power of a holistic team. 

“I’ve become a friend to them. That has been very rewarding for me,” she said. “We can do small impacts and when you put all that together, it makes a difference.”

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