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May 8, 2018

MSU scientists improve health for children and seniors through better nutrition

Michigan State University scientists Amy Saxe-Custack and Jean Kerver had two separate, but common, ideas that could improve the health of those they serve in their communities. Now, each have received a $500,000 grant from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund to further their work.

Saxe-Custack, assistant professor of food science and human nutrition in the MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and nutrition director of the MSU-Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative, or PPHI, will use her grant to encourage children in Flint to eat healthier. 

Kerver, assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics in the MSU College of Human Medicine, will oversee a program to help Traverse City-area senior citizens avoid hospital readmissions by providing them with nourishing meals.

The common purpose of both programs is improving human health through proper nutrition.

“Nutrition is an important part of all of this,” Saxe-Custack said.

As a registered dietician, she worked with Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of PPHI, to give “prescriptions” to children and families that were redeemable for fruits and vegetables at the Flint Farmers’ Market. Initially, each child seen at the Hurley Children’s Clinic, in the same building as the Farmers’ Market, was given a $10 voucher.

“We heard from parents that they were holding onto the vouchers until they had $30 or so and using them when their food dollars were running low,” Saxe-Custack said. “We hadn’t anticipated that.”

As a result, supporters of the program agreed to raise the vouchers to $15. At the urging of parents, MSU and Hurley Children’s Hospital created Flint Kids Cook, a cooking and nutrition class for children at the Flint Farmers’ Market.

With the new grant, the food prescription program will expand to a second pediatrics clinic in Flint. The vouchers will also be redeemable at the Flint Fresh Mobile Market. Flint Kids Cook classes also will be offered at a second location in northwest Flint.

The expansion of the program is particularly critical now, because proper nutrition can help mitigate health problems associated with lead exposure from Flint’s water supply.

“The water crisis happened in an area where access to healthy food has been a continuing problem,” Saxe-Custack said. “Essentially, we’re in a food desert in Flint. Ultimately, what we’d like to see is these kids eating more fruits and vegetables.”

A similar prescription awaits some older patients after they are discharged from Munson Medical Center in Traverse City. Munson will provide seven days worth of meals to patients over 60 who have been hospitalized for pneumonia, congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or heart attack, Kerver said. The patients then will be transferred to the Meals on Wheels program, and nutritionists at Munson will instruct each on proper nutrition.

“When you’ve just been released from the hospital, you might not feel like eating,” Kerver said, adding that poor nutrition is a common cause of hospital readmissions, particularly among older patients.

In addition to keeping patients healthy, she expects the program will reduce medical costs, which is why Kelly Hirko and Zhehui Luo, both faculty members in the MSU Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, will evaluate the health benefits and cost effectiveness of the program.

“We are testing the hypothesis that this nutritional care coordination will reduce hospital readmissions,” said Kerver, who, along with Hirko, is based in northern Michigan. “This grant is really nice, because it will help us do what we’re here for: serve the community.”

Similarly, the Flint grant will support a program that could be used as a model elsewhere, Saxe-Custack said, adding that, “It’s nice to feel that something very positive is coming out of Flint.”

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