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Arkansas maternal health disparities, nutrition focus of new study

An Arkansas House Committee Discussed Maternal Health Monday.
Bee Harris
A new study aims to close the health equity gap faced by pregnant Arkansans.

Ensuring reliable access to healthy food for pregnant Arkansans, and cutting down on complications during pregnancy and the postpartum period, is the focus of a new study.

A $17.5 million grant from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute is funding the joint effort by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and Community Health Centers of Arkansas.

Lanita White, CEO of Community Health Centers of Arkansas, says 65% of women in Arkansas are obese or overweight when they become pregnant.

“Excessive gestational weight gain during pregnancy perpetuates many complications both for the pregnant mother and for the infant. Women who do not have access to healthy foods are at greater risk for this excessive gestational weight gain, and the associated maternal complications that come along with that,” she said.

All study participants will receive nutritional counseling and help applying to public assistance programs. One group of participants will receive deliveries of healthy foods during pregnancy and the postpartum period.

Pearl McElfish, division director of the UAMS Office of Community Health & Research, says the research will take place at 14 community health centers across Arkansas.

“Approximately 75% of the funding will flow down to the community clinics, to the clinics in those rural communities, and we are really committed to making sure that the funds get outside of the university system and into the communities that need it the most,” she said.

McElfish says she and other study leaders have been in talks with Bentonville-based Walmart about partnering on the grocery delivery program. White says a number of other nonprofits tackling health and hunger challenges, including the Arkansas Minority Health Commission and the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, will participate in the study.

“These partnerships help ensure that we conduct research that can be translated into policy and also clinical interventions, and not only helps those enrolled in the study but all pregnant women throughout Arkansas and ultimately the United States.”

McElfish says the study will also examine health disparities faced by people of color and residents of rural communities.

“In total we will enroll 1,440 women, with most of the women being from rural regions of Arkansas and minority women. And we will examine the differences in effect, the heterogeneity of effect, based on rural and urban as well as based on race and ethnicity.”

Arkansas ranks worst in the nation for both food insecurity and maternal health outcomes, with the mortality rate about three times higher for Black and Native American women.

Daniel Breen is News Director of Little Rock Public Radio.