Foundation grants $4.5 million to program preventing infant deaths

Sep 7, 2011

A program that’s showing signs of progress in reducing low birth weight and infant deaths among African-Americans is getting a major vote of confidence. The W. K. Kellogg Foundation has awarded a $4.5 million grant to a program in Grand Rapids called Strong Beginnings.

The program has reduced the number of black infant deaths in Grand Rapids by more than 20 percent in five years. 

Peggy Vander Meulen is executive director of Strong Beginnings.

She lists at least a dozen reasons why moms deliver babies with a very low weight or lose their infants altogether. But even when controlling for factors, like smoking and poverty, Vander Meulen says African-American mothers still have a higher risk of complications.

“African-American women with graduate degrees – we’re talking like MDs, and JDs, and MBAs – have worse outcomes than white women who never made it through high school.”

African-American infants are two and a half times more likely to die than white infants born in the U.S. There are a number of reasons why. But Vander Meulen says stress associated with racism in general still plays a huge role in low birth weight and infant deaths in minority communities. The program offers prenatal and mental health services to pregnant women and works with institutions to improve racial equity.

Vander Meulen says it’s important to note Strong Beginnings has also reduced the number of babies born at a very low weight, around four pounds or less.

 “They don’t die, but they go on, many of them with learning disabilities, behavioral problems, physical disabilities that again delay their school achievement, cost huge amounts of money and effect the family and society long-term.”

There are other communities in the state with similar programs: Detroit, Flint, Saginaw, Kalamazoo and the Intertribal Council of Michigan.