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UMMC partners in fight to end child hunger

Published on Monday, October 2, 2017

By: Ruth Cummins

NOTE: This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of CONSULT, UMMC's monthly electronic newsletter. To have CONSULT, and more stories like this, delivered directly to your inbox, click here to subscribe.

Come January, some parents of children seen in the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s Pediatric Emergency Department will be asked a revealing, two-pronged question – and given help, depending on their answers.

The verbal query asks parents, during the last 12 months, have they worried about running out of food in their respective households before they had the available funds to buy more - and within the last month, has this actually happened?

Their answers will add to a critical pool of data that will gauge food insecurity impacting children treated in the Pediatric ED. Those numbers represent just one factor affecting child health outcomes, and one more area where policy influence may be needed to improve their lives.


UMMC has been chosen as a new expansion site for Children’s HealthWatch, a Kellogg Foundation-supported project that collects data – typically in pediatric emergency rooms – to fuel research into factors that impact child health outcomes. Dr. Bettina Beech, professor of population health science and pediatrics and dean of the John D. Bower School of Population Health, and Dr. Justin Davis, assistant professor of pediatric emergency medicine, are co-principal investigators for the local research.

Being named an expansion site is affirmation of the Medical Center’s research prowess and the Kellogg Foundation’s desire to target its grant dollars where they have the chance to effect change, Beech said.

“Here, we have plenty of opportunities to make a difference,” said Beech, who also serves as executive director of the Myrlie Evers-Williams Institute for the Elimination of Health Disparities at the Jackson Medical Mall Thad Cochran Center.

Mississippi ranks last in the nation in child food insecurity, or what the federal government defines as “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or the inability to get nutritious food because of a lack of transportation, money or sheer availability.”

Children’s HealthWatch is a Boston-based nonpartisan network of pediatricians, public health researchers and children’s health and policy experts that gathers data from hospitals in seven cities: Boston; Baltimore; Little Rock, Arkansas; Minneapolis; Philadelphia; and new sites Jackson and Battle Creek, Michigan.

"We're trying to bring together science and policy in an attempt to allay hardships among families," said Stephanie Ettinger de Cuba, the nonprofit organization's executive director.

UMMC was chosen for multiple reasons, she said.

"We don't have anyone who focuses on population health like Dr. Beech, and she has an incredible advisory board. And Dr. Davis' interest in driving more research . . . They're a really impressive pair," de Cuba said. "We can hopefully drive some change with the combination of their experience and expertise." 

De Cuba
de Cuba

Trained research assistants will use a random selection process to approach parents in the Pediatric Emergency Department and confidentially ask them to join the research cohort, Davis said. The assistants will complete a minimum of 800 interviews annually.

“What’s exciting for us is that we feel like our population in the emergency department will help us better understand social determinants” that relate to hunger, Davis said.

Families in need will receive information on local food banks and other resources, Beech said.

Just one helping hand is Stewpot Community Services in Jackson. The nonprofit organization serves lunch seven days a week and each day gives non-perishable food to about 25 families. An average of 325 families being served are allowed four visits per year. Senior citizens served by Stewpot can pick up food once a month.

Jill Buckley, Stewpot's executive director, said there is plenty of hunger in the community, "and we don't have a good way to assess whether what we're doing is enough. The food pantry is where we get most of the families coming through. That's where we interact with moms and kids."

Buckley said when families visit, they're given a four-day supply of food for each family member. Other area food pantries help to fill the gaps between visits, she said.

Davis said because UMMC has the state’s only children’s hospital and Pediatric Emergency Department of its type, the information gleaned during the project will be unique.

“It will give us the ability to understand where our children are at, and what we can do to help them.”

UMMC's research partnership with Children's HealthWatch can make a difference in child hunger and food insecurity, Buckley said.

"We rely on people to let others know that we're out there," she said. "We'd hope that UMMC would give out our information for people to come here.

"Batson serves a very wide area. We mainly serve Hinds County, but if someone from Vicksburg (treated at the Pediatric ICU) showed up at our door, we would get them food that day."

Stephanie Echols, director of food services at Stewpot Community Services in Jackson, oversees the nonprofit’s food pantry that supplies needy families and senior citizens with non-perishable groceries. Some of Stewpot’s food stock comes from the Mississippi Food Network, which works to address hunger and food insecurity in Mississippi communities.
Stephanie Echols, director of food services at Stewpot Community Services in Jackson, oversees the nonprofit organization’s food pantry.

According to Beech, one of the most impactful studies performed by Children’s HealthWatch was the development of the trademarked, two-question Hunger Vital Sign screening tool used by all of its sites. The screen also is used at UMMC's Adolescent and Young Adult Health Clinic at the Jackson Medical Mall Thad Cochran Center.

“UMMC is moving in a very progressive direction to consider factors not addressed in the usual health care situation so that we can address the factors that affect health outcomes,” Beech said.

UMMC won’t just collect local data for use by Children’s HealthWatch.

“What we’re moving to is a deeper dive on the questions,” de Cuba said. “As Dr. Davis sees a trend in the emergency room, or Dr. Beech sees things in the community, they can generate local data and be able to comment on local issues."

The Food Pantry at Stewpot Community Services on West Capitol Street in Jackson. 
The Food Pantry at Stewpot Community Services on West Capitol Street in Jackson stocks all manner of canned goods. 

One example is understanding labels on food or over-the-counter drugs, Beech said.

“Can you figure out how many calories are in one serving based on the amount of food?” she asked. “How much medication should be used for a child of a certain weight?

“It’s not just, ‘Can I read?’ but ‘Do I understand very complex information?’"

“We don’t plan to stop there,” Davis said. “We will harness data to help address interventions that we can employ.”