Health News

$3.4 million grant aims to improve health of black families on the Coast

A $3.4 million grant has been awarded to help black families on the Mississippi Coast live healthier lives by embracing breastfeeding, healthy living and avoiding tobacco use.

The five-year grant is one of 31 given to areas around the nation to reduce health disparities among populations with a high risk of chronic diseases, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The grant is from the CDC’s Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health program, known as REACH. It aims to improve lives by building stronger relationships between black communities, public health groups, health care providers and community-based organizations, said Roy Hart, chief executive officer of the Mississippi Public Health Institute.

Hart describes REACH as “a tremendous opportunity to make a positive, long-term impact on the health of thousands of families on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”

Partners in the grant include the MPHI, Coastal Family Health Center and Gulf Coast Health Communities Collaborative.

Some of the plans include finding ways to teach black families about nutrition, making sure they have access to healthy foods and promoting the benefits of breastfeeding, said Jacina Roach, program director.

Breastfeeding for health

“Mississippi has the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the nation and the breakdown is even lower in the African American community,” Roach said.

One of the key reasons mothers quit breastfeeding early is they have no support, no one to turn to for questions, Roach said. Also, many new mothers who return to work find they have no place to pump their milk other than a bathroom, she said.

A 2018 report from the CDC shows that 63 percent of Mississippi mothers who gave birth in 2015 started breastfeeding; 35 percent were still breastfeeding at six months, and 18 percent breastfed for at least 12 months.

Of those, 84 percent of mothers were Hispanic, 81 percent were white, and 69 percent were black, the report shows.

Aside from healthy benefits to the baby, breastfeeding can reduce the risk for Type 2 diabetes in mothers, and breastfeeding saves about $1,500 year in the costs of formula, the CDC says.

The Mississippi State University Social Science Research Center plans a survey to address knowledge, attitudes and beliefs about nutrition, breastfeeding, tobacco-free living and smoking among black mothers. Collaborators, partners and others will consider survey results and help design a long-term program.

Baby cafes and food drops

REACH hopes to set up “baby cafes” at Merit Health Biloxi and Singing River Hospital in Pascagoula to give breastfeeding mothers a place to gather as a support system. REACH also hopes to educate pharmacists, who people often turn to not just for medicine questions but for health questions as well, Roach said.

REACH may also partner with the Society of St. Andrew, a faith-based hunger relief nonprofit, to held a “food drop.” The program would allow farmers who have sold their crops to stores at the end of a season to open their fields to volunteers, who could pick the crops, bag them and give them to needy families, Roach said.

Access to healthy foods can be a problem, especially for those who live in rural areas with only a convenience store nearby to shop for food, she said.

No smoking

As a tobacco-free strategy, the program may try to start a program similar to the “Baby and Me Tobacco Free” program of the Mississippi State Department of Health, Roach said. Parents can take a carbon monoxide test, which shows the presence of or absence of tobacco in their systems. If they test negative, they receive free diapers.

“We not only want to stop pregnant women and mothers from smoking,” Roach said. “We also want to stop secondhand exposure as well. As our different strategies move forward, we will be letting the public know.

Gulf Coast Health Communities Collaborative and the Coastal Family Health Center will collaborate with REACH to identify and accomplish goals.

The GCHCC brings together partners to use data to help communities become more resilient in improving health and quality of life, liason Tracy Wyman said.

Coastal Family Health Center, the other grant partner, is a safety-net health care provider for people, especially mothers and babies, who may not otherwise be able to afford medical care.

REACH is “a stepping stone for partners across our Gulf Coast to create a network to strengthen and empower families and improve our health outcomes,” Chief Executive Officer Angel Greer said.

Also participating are the MSDH Office of Tobacco Control, Office of Women Infants and Children (WIC), several hospital systems, Gulf Coast Breastfeeding Center, South Mississippi Breastfeeding Coalition and Reaching Our Sisters Everywhere, a breastfeeding support network that aims to reduce disparities that affect African American women.

Robin Fitzgerald covers real-time news, such as crime, public safety and trending stories. In nearly 40 years as a journalist, her highest honors include investigative awards for covering the aftermath of the fatal beating of a Harrison County jail inmate in 2006 and related civil rights violations. She is a Troy University graduate.