Researchers Awarded $1.2 Million from AHA for Food is Medicine Research

Researchers Awarded $1.2 Million from AHA for Food is Medicine Research
Shreela Sharma, PhD, RDN, LD; Nalini Ranjit, PhD; and Alexandra van den Berg, PhD, MPH, to lead $1.2 million award from American Heart Association.

The American Heart Association (AHA) awarded a cumulative $1.2 million to UTHealth Houston School of Public Health researchers to test the effectiveness of Food is Medicine interventions to improve maternal and infant health outcomes. 

These awards are part of the AHA's $7.8 million national initiative to expand Food is Medicine projects under its Health Care by Food program. Public health researchers have embarked on groundbreaking efforts to enhance health outcomes by way of nutrition.  

Researchers are actively engaged in food-based interventions such as food prescription plans and other resource designs to mitigate the impacts of food insecurity and chronic health conditions. The AHA selected three researchers at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health as award recipients to contribute to this initiative.  

Shreela Sharma, PhD, RDN, LD professor and vice chair of the Department of Epidemiology, was awarded $430,452 for the project "Testing the Impact of TBES (text-based engagement strategies) Rx." This project will test the impact of high frequency messaging with cardholders on activity and utilization to increase fruit and vegetable consumption for high-risk pregnant mothers. Outcomes from the study will be used to build similar messaging platforms to boost healthy eating habits. “This project will test strategies to enhance engagement in produce prescription programs, and assess optimal dosage and delivery strategies,” said Sharma, who also serves as director for the Center for Health Equity. The project is in partnership with Tufts University Research Assistant Professor Ronit Ridberg, PhD, and About Fresh, which provides the Fresh Connect produce prescription program.  

Nalini Ranjit, PhD, associate professor of the Department of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences and at the Michael and Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living, will serve as the primary investigator on a $447,480 award, alongside Sharma, to examine the utilization of a produce prescription program among high-risk pregnant mothers. The project will analyze the effectiveness of tailored nutrition plans and food preparation guidance in improving health outcomes for high-risk pregnant women. Ranjit and Sharma plan to bolster partnerships with for-profit food distributors to process and deliver biweekly produce plans of fresh fruits and vegetables to participants’ homes. The project is being implemented with Planet Harvest, Brighter Bites, and Harris Health System.  

Access to produce prescription plans can aid in addressing health disparities and barriers that leave pregnant women at health risk. "Lacking such access, low-income populations are at disproportionately higher risk of developing several chronic diseases, which are far more expensive to treat than prevent," said Ranjit, emphasizing the positive outcomes this could have on health care systems. 

In recent studies, the rise of Food is Medicine studies has been tailored to investigate its impact on postpartum women. To further this field's research, Alexandra van den Berg, PhD, MPH, professor of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences, and associate director of the Michael and Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living, was awarded $394,804 for the project "Enhancing Food is Medicine Interventions for Food Insecure Postpartum Women in Central Texas." Nutrition is critical for health, but for postpartum women, healthy eating is especially critical. "Postnatal maternal food insecurity is positively correlated with poorer maternal mental health, reduced breastfeeding, and higher infant hospitalization rates," said van den Berg, emphasizing the need for adequate nutrition. 

 By providing food and other needed resources to food insecure families with new babies, van den Berg expects to create both nutrition and food security for 150 postpartum families who will be recruited into the project through Ascension Seton hospital. Process and outcomes data will be continuously monitored to allow tailoring of the project as needed. This project will be carried out in collaboration with The Cook’s Nook, Farmshare Austin, and Ascension Seton.  

The rise of "Food is Medicine" has gained significant attention and emerged as a central focus for researchers and policy makers, promising innovative solutions to improve health outcomes. 

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