Saving Wabash Valley Babies One Family at a Time

The numbers are startling.

In 2020, the most current year available, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention reported that Indiana was ninth of the top 10 states for infant mortality, losing 6.5 babies out of every 1,000 live births. Add to that number stillbirths and miscarriages, and the heartbreak becomes a community problem.

According to the Wabash Valley Fetal-Infant Mortality Review, 9.5 babies out of every 1,000 died in 2019 during their first year in Central Southwest Indiana. Of those 23 deaths, 18 were found to have “preventable factors,” the report stated.

But a Wabash Valley coalition is striving to correct that course. It has taken six agencies working towards 18 months toward one goal – preventing infant mortality – to make the maternal food prescription pilot program possible. It is the dream of NEP Community Wellness Coordinator Allison Finzel to make the program available statewide one day.

Finzel was inspired by a story on NPR about the impact of nutrition on reducing infant mortality rates and decided that was what her community needed.

When she shared the idea with Dr. Jim Turner, the health director of the Richard G. Lugar Center for Rural Health and Finzel’s neighbor, the vision began to take shape. Union Health and the Lugar Center for Rural Health have been working to reduce infant mortality rates for years. In 2020, the hospital earned the inaugural INspire Hospital of Distinction honor.

As Finzel discussed the value of a food prescription program, she said Dr. Turner replied, “We’ve never added nutrition, what a great idea! Let’s screen for food insecurity.”

Finzel and Dr. Turner began inviting people to join the conversation. Finzel told fellow Community Wellness Coordinator Melinda Duckett, who serves Parke County – which has only one grocery store in the entire county. Dr. Turner contacted partners at Union Health. Both continued to reach out to local agencies until the team consisted of representatives from Purdue Extension, Union Health, Indiana State University, Terre Haute Catholic Charities Foodbank, Chances and Services for Youth, Vigo County YMCA, and the Union Health Foundation.

Union Health’s All Babies and Healthy Start Initiative evolved into a comprehensive approach to maternal and fetal health.

When the program’s participants – three moms and a dad – arrive for their weekly classes, they are greeted like old friends and fall into place around the kitchen table like family. After the cooking demonstration, they move into a classroom for lunch and a lesson from Union Health navigators.

“Our moms were getting the obstetrics care, but they didn’t have the supports they needed,” said Michelle Arnold, who works with families in eight counties in her roles as a navigator and community health worker at Union Health. “(Here) they get a cooking lesson, lunch together, a nutrition class, prenatal information, groceries to take home, child care, and emotional support. Everything they need for a healthy pregnancy can be found here.”

Thanks to various grants, every foreseeable barrier to a healthy pregnancy, successful delivery, and triumphant first year of life has been removed. The free program is open to Union Health’s clients in Parke, Vermillion, and Vigo counties, as well as collar counties in the Wabash Valley.

Participants receive:

  • weekly food baskets donated by Terre Haute Catholic Charities Foodbank,
  • cooking classes from Purdue Extension,
  • nutrition education classes from Indiana State University,
  • personalized health classes from Union Health’s nurse navigators,
  • child care offered by the Yigo County YMCA, and
  • transportation to classes if needed.

CASY provides the kitchen and classroom space.

For Terre Haute Catholic Charities Foodbank, this program fits into the agency’s growing awareness that supplying food is just the beginning of meeting the community’s needs, said Assistant Agency Director Jennifer Buell.

Buell said providing the food to the program gives participants the opportunity to learn what to expect from food pantries, should they ever need to visit one.

“What we are realizing is that all of that donated food does no good if our clients don’t know how to use it,” Buell said.

“The group we have is just wonderful!” said Purdue Extension Nutrition Program Advisor Judith Barnes, who helped teach participants how to convert the ingredients they received into tasty meals.

“They have all gained knowledge from it. They have been very grateful. They let us know that they appreciate it. They enjoy the camaraderie. They enjoy being together and they enjoy being with us. We’ve all been moms, we’ve all breastfed, we’ve all been through it. So, we all understand.”

Nutrition education is provided by Indiana State University Instructor Casey Strawser, a registered dietitian. She said the moms have commented most on the amount of food they have received and the cooking demos, but they are hoping that over the long-run, the program helps moms improve their nutritional intake.

“We want to teach moms how to cook better, how to eat better,” Strawser said. “Nutrition education is an integral part of a healthy pregnancy. We are also hoping to increase their access to the food banks in the area, particularly Terre Haute Catholic Charities Foodbank, so they will know where their resources are for nutritious, healthy food.”

For participant Tori Clampitt, of Rosedale, the program has been invaluable. At 31 weeks, she has not missed one of the seven classes. Clampitt said her husband, Scott, attends the classes with her when he is not working. At one of the classes he attended, he learned how to read nutrition facts labels. Now, he checks the labels when deciding what brands to buy.

“It has been really helpful for me and my friends,” Clampitt said. “This is my first kid, so I thought it might be a lot of new information I might need. I have a lot of friends that are pregnant or have young kids, so I tell them about classes. I have a few friends who want to come when they start the next one.”

“This is really good if you are a new mom and not sure about some things.”