Newswise — In the city of St. Louis, 26 percent of households regularly do not know whether they will be able to feed their family. In 2015, a survey of patients at Danis Pediatric Center at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital found that 57 percent of caregivers experienced some level of household food insecurity.

With a $580,000 grant from Missouri Foundation for Health, a team of Saint Louis University researchers aims to lower the rate of food insecurity while connecting families to available resources by improving screening practices and follow-up care.

“How can we provide kids the opportunity to flourish? At a basic level, kids can’t flourish if they can’t eat,” said principal investigator Ellen Barnidge, Ph.D., associate professor of behavioral science and health education at Saint Louis University’s College for Public Health and Social Justice.

The three-year grant will fund a team of researchers, social workers, students and community partners to create, implement and refine a system that will improve screening and follow-up with families struggling with food insecurity, as well as other resource insecurities.

The project will connect families with existing community resources they may not be aware of or have trouble accessing by training health advocates. The advocates will help care givers complete applications for federal food subsidies, find financial products and debt consolidation opportunities, obtain public transportation vouchers or identify training for parents of young children, among other support opportunities. Health advocates will follow up with families for one year to ensure success.

Early interventions to provide safety net services have the potential to deter future health problems through provision of basic needs and services for low-income families. Providing supportive referrals and connections before a family is in crisis can provide long-term stability and health.

Children who live in resource-limited households have more cognitive, emotional and physical health challenges throughout their life and face a greater risk of multiple chronic diseases, including obesity. Recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics suggest that pediatric clinical settings may create optimal screening opportunities for the identification of household food insecurity.

“Screening alone does not address food insecurity or other resource insecurities,” Barnidge said. “Taking advantage of the fact that most families with children interact with the health care system, we can identify families who may need support and actively link them to community-based resources, increasing the likelihood that families will get the support they need.”

The team – which includes Saint Louis University, Danis Pediatric Center at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, Operation Food Search, Parents as Teachers, St. Louis Area Diaper Bank, St. Louis Community Credit Union and St. Louis Area Food Bank – hopes to reach 60 families in the first year and, in the long-term, reduce food insecurity among Danis’ 9,000-plus patient population. The partners will create a community advisory committee of nonprofit service providers.

Operation Food Search and the St. Louis Diaper Bank will be providing emergency meal kits and diaper packs for use at well child visits if an immediate need is identified. Well child visits provide an opportunity to serve families on a regular, ongoing basis.

SLU students in medicine, public health and social work will be trained as health advocates for the families, sharing information on opportunities for food, banking, training, transportation and social work.

“This program is a unique opportunity for SLU students to not only connect families to crucial resources, but also be formed into future practitioners invested in empathetic, evidence-based care for families vulnerable to poor health outcomes,” says Josh Arthur, M.D., a SLU pediatrician and a co-investigator on the project.

Barnidge, Arthur and fellow co-investigator Gene LaBarge, M.D., also a SLU pediatrician and professor at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, began working together to combat food insecurity in 2016. The trio received a SLU Health Sciences Collaborative Research Institute grant to look at solutions from both a pediatric physician perspective and a public health view.

The SLU Health Sciences Collaborative Research Institute grants provide health science researchers from various disciplines seed money for research projects which fostered collaboration across health disciplines.

LaBarge and Barnidge began looking at a collaboration around food insecurity in 2015. Around the same time, Arthur joined the School of Medicine faculty as director of the Community Advocacy through Resident Education (CARE) Program. He also was interested in addressing food insecurity among families served at the Danis Pediatrics Center.

In the summer of 2015 the trio conducted two surveys – the first for caregivers of Danis patients to assess household food insecurity in the patient population and a second for physicians to assess their readiness to address food insecurity in the clinical visit.

Missouri Foundation for Health

Missouri Foundation for Health is a resource for the region, working with communities and nonprofits to generate and accelerate positive changes in health. As a catalyst for change, the Foundation improves the health of Missourians through partnership, experience, knowledge, and funding. To learn more please visit

School of Medicine

Established in 1836, Saint Louis University School of Medicine has the distinction of awarding the first medical degree west of the Mississippi River. The school educates physicians and biomedical scientists, conducts medical research, and provides health care on a local, national and international level. Research at the school seeks new cures and treatments in five key areas: infectious disease, liver disease, cancer, heart/lung disease, and aging and brain disorders.

College for Public Health and Social Justice

The Saint Louis University College for Public Health and Social Justice is the only academic unit of its kind among the nearly 250 Catholic institutions of higher education in the United States. With a focus on finding innovative and collaborative solutions for complex global health problems, the College offers nationally recognized programs in global public health, social work, health management and health policy, epidemiology, biostatistics, environmental and occupational health, behavioral science and health education, emergency management, biosecurity and disaster preparedness, and criminology and criminal justice.