Putting Research into Practice: UAMS Researchers Deliver for Quarantined Residents
A mother and her three preschool-age children ran out of food as they self-isolated in rural Washington County, awaiting COVID-19 test results. They were far from a grocery store and had no transportation. The next day, on a hot July 2 afternoon, a volunteer pulled into their driveway to deliver emergency food aid.
As the last box of food was placed on the doorstep, one of the children shouted excitedly, “We can eat now!”
The emergency food distribution to at-risk residents in northwest Arkansas has been led by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) Northwest Regional Campus and its Office of Community Health and Research. The team of investigators there has spent the last several years developing scalable, low-cost interventions in the food system primarily to address the diabetes epidemic. Along the way, they have built strong relationships with grassroots community groups and corporations, resulting in dozens of collaborations and partnerships.
When the coronavirus arrived, the UAMS team accepted a request from local philanthropic foundations to manage nearly $800,000 to support regional food aid to low-income residents affected by COVID-19. The funding came from the Walmart Foundation, the Alice L. Walton Foundation and the Beacon Fund, and was disbursed by the Arkansas Community Foundation, said UAMS’ Chris Long, Ph.D., senior director of Research & Evaluation, Office of Community Health & Research.
“They thought of us as a reliable and trustworthy partner because of our history of work with food systems in Northwest Arkansas,” he said.
Long, UAMS’ Emily English, Dr.P.H., M.P.S., and other colleagues reviewed grant proposals almost daily and have directed nearly $600,000 to 40 community organizations, including schools, to help feed low-income families affected by COVID-19.
“All the years of TRI’s (UAMS Translational Research Institute) support helping us build these enduring relationships has had a remarkable payoff, especially during COVID-19,” Long said. “We are translating the research that we have done and partnering with both retail and charitable food system partners in a high-pressure, real-life situation.”
Food insecurity became a more acute issue when Northwest Arkansas became a COVID-19 hotspot, forcing thousands of residents to quarantine at home. Most affected were Marshallese and Latinx communities - a focus of the team’s long-standing diabetes research collaborative.
The idea for home delivery of food aid came from Pearl McElfish, Ph.D., MBA, vice chancellor for the UAMS Northwest Regional Campus, as she was cooking for quarantined friends.
“This is why we exist as the Office of Community Health and Research - to address these problems,” McElfish told Long.
The Walmart Foundation agreed to allow the team to use some of its existing funding to establish a rapid response food delivery system for suddenly food insecure families self-quarantining due to COVID-19.
Long, English, and their colleagues convened about a dozen key community partners, including local food pantries, Ozark Regional Transit, Community Clinic NWA, Tyson Foods, and the Northwest Arkansas Foodbank, to develop a plan. The UAMS team created an electronic form for referrals of food-insecure self-quarantining residents. The referral form was deployed to a network of local health clinics, including Federally Qualified Health Center clinics, and other community organizations.
The UAMS team and the community partners procured a refrigerated truck in less than a week and, with a strong group of volunteers, began making emergency food aid deliveries. To date the effort has made over 600 household deliveries.
“So even today, every Saturday at 6:30 a.m., a group of volunteers and a truck from the food bank meet at Ozark Regional Transit,” Long said. “We send the addresses to the transit authority, who then enters them into their routing software to map the most efficient delivery routes.”
The Northwest Regional Campus’ research is supported by TRI through the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as well as other NIH grants, the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Office of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, and private foundations.