Growing healthy produce in small spaces for expecting mothers

Having a regular diet of nutritious food is a key component for the health of expectant mothers, in order to help promote a baby’s growth and development. But that may be difficult when there’s a lack of access to enough food — something made even more challenging due to COVID-19. 

For example, in the St. Louis area alone, food insecurity increased quickly amid the pandemic.

To help address this need for fresh, healthy food, Operation Food Search (OFS) is using an innovative approach to help streamline the process. Through use of two vertical hydroponic gardens from Fork Farms — provided by a $10,000 grant from the UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Missouri — the hunger relief organization can grow their own lettuce on site. The lettuce is then placed in take-home kits for expectant mothers and their families, as part of its FreshRx program

The program provides low-income families with weekly nutrient-dense meals from local farmers and producers, along with supportive resources, to help encourage a healthy lifestyle. The goal isn’t merely to reduce food insecurity — it’s to also help reduce long-term health effects, like chronic conditions or low birth weights, and the high health care costs that may go with it. 

By growing fresh produce at the food bank, OFS is able to align their menus with the growing cycle, in order to offer same-day delivery for the people they serve. The Flex Farm hydroponic units occupy less than 10 square feet of space and each can serve up to 1,900 families per year with a harvest of nearly 3,400 plants.

“The Flex Farms turn warehouse space into productive space,” said Josh Mahlik, director of strategic partnerships at Fork Farms. 

For UnitedHealthcare, providing the community with healthy, fresh food is a key component to supporting the overall well-being of the members served. Increasing access to healthier food for those who need it most, and addressing a key determinant of health, not only helps support a healthy pregnancy but may help lead to a lifetime of wellness.

“Non-medical factors, including safe housing, transportation and access to nutritious, affordable food have a considerable impact on our health. We’re grateful for the innovative work by Flex Farms and Operation Food Search to make it easier for our communities to access healthy food, and are proud to help them bring fresh produce to more Missourians,” said Jamie Bruce, CEO of UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Missouri.   

For organizations like OFS and Flex Farms, it’s important that food security is about more than hunger — it’s about human dignity, and the joy from food that is fresh and tastes good. With the FreshRx bundles for expectant mothers and their families, OFS is able to put this mission into action.

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