Family Nourishment Room gives NICU families one less reason to worry

May 2024
A table and colorful décor in the nourishment room give families a welcoming space to gather. All the tables in the room were crafted by local a firefighter who is also an artisan.



When a newborn needs intensive care, the baby is not the only one who requires special attention.

For a family distraught over their child's condition, basics like healthy food, occasional distractions and the knowledge that help is near can make a harrowing experience easier to handle.

That kind of relief is what the Family Nourishment Room at Covenant Children's Hospital in Lubbock, Texas, is all about. The room gives families with babies in the nearby NICU 24-hour access to food options that are far better than last-ditch choices from vending machines and more convenient than those at the distant cafeteria.

Refrigerators in the Family Nourishment Room at Covenant Children's Hospital in Lubbock, Texas, are stocked with salads, fresh snacks and ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat meals. The room is open to family members of patients in the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit.

The room, which opened in February, began with the realization that support was needed beyond the NICU itself.

"There was a family that was from a couple of hours away," recalled Christine Neugebauer, manager of integrative care at Covenant Children's. "They did not have a lot of family support or family resources, and they were staying in a nearby hotel with their other kids. There was only so much that we were able to offer for food support and supplements, and I remember saying if only we could start a food pantry."

The room has a microwave and a full-size refrigerator and a standing freezer stocked with meals full of lean proteins and whole grains and intended to give energy and well-rounded nutrition. Some of the ready meals include salads, lasagna and Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes. Yogurt, cheese sticks, fresh fruit and vegetables and other healthy snacks are available, too. Cabinets are stocked with a variety of foods such as oatmeal, mac and cheese and peanut butter crackers. 

'A powerful connector'
The NICU admits close to 500 patients each year from across West Texas and eastern New Mexico. Patients stay an average of 30 days.

Dina Jeffries, chief executive of the area's South Plains Food Bank, knew some NICU families were dealing with the inconvenience of buying or bringing meals.

"I saw families trying to sustain themselves just by eating food out of vending machines and bringing in sacks from convenience stores," she said. "Their whole world is their critically ill child in the neonatal unit, and even if you give them a free voucher to go to the cafeteria to get food, they don't want to go three floors down away from their baby."

“What started out as a little closet of food — kind of grab-and-go snacks — turned into just an amazing space that families could just go sit, relax, breathe. It’s a respite.”
— Dina Jeffries


Jeffries sees food as a "powerful connector" that draws people together. "That's really what the family unit needed at that time," she said. "So what started out as a little closet of food — kind of grab-and-go snacks — turned into just an amazing space that families could just go sit, relax, breathe. It's a respite."

Welcome lifeline
Such a helpful escape was a welcome lifeline for Elisabet after her daughter arrived prematurely in January. Elisabet, who wanted only her first name used, and her husband live an hour's drive from the hospital and were unable to stay with their newborn as often as they would have liked.

"Towards the beginning, I would try to be here as much as I could, so I would rarely go down to the cafeteria to get food," she said. "The nourishment room is right by the NICU, so that's really convenient. Otherwise, I would just have to go get food from all the way downstairs, so I would have to miss being with my daughter."

A cupboard in the room keeps snacks at the ready for NICU families.



As a pioneer in the use of the room, Elisabet watched as more families took advantage of it. The families grew into a close-knit group and agreed the convenience of the food options provided one less problem to worry about.

"They've been treating us just the best that we could hope for," she said of Covenant Children's. "I think they're trying to make it as good as they can with it being an incredibly tough situation."

Maintaining dignity
Efforts to address families' food needs started truly small, the size of a closet, according to Emilia Garcia, NICU project manager at Covenant Children's.

"When we say closet," she said, "we literally mean an office supply closet that we halfway cleared out to make room for the dried goods that we bought with our first grant."

As the effort grew, Garcia added, one thought was foremost in organizers' minds. "Our concern was making sure that we continued to support and preserve the dignity of our families," she said. "That's why we decided to offer it to all of our families as opposed to singling out people because like, OK, you are lower socioeconomic income, so you qualify for the food pantry.

"Being in the NICU is a very traumatic experience. It's always about maintaining dignity, keeping it open to everyone and never assuming that we know best or we know what people's needs and issues are outside of this unit. We don't want to bring any shame to anyone; it's difficult to say 'We don't have food in our house.'"

To help make sure families in need are treated fairly, organizers of the nourishment room consulted with the hospital's Family Advisory Council, Neugebauer said.

"We asked, how would this work?" she said. "They were really adamant about having access where you don't have to ask somebody first if you can go in or have anybody monitoring what they take."

The nourishment room provides a play area for youngsters.

And, Jeffries said, having healthy food available fits a growing trend of food as medicine.

"Here in Lubbock, we are just really lucky to be part of a medical community and know the needs of this area," she said. "How do we get food out into the rural areas, where not everyone can come to the food bank, or if they're in the hospital for two weeks, or two months, with their critically ill child, when they leave they haven't been home, and their cabinets are empty?"

'Everyone is welcome'
Garcia noted that as part of the Providence Saint Joseph Health system, Covenant Children's wanted to exemplify the values of Mother Emilie Gamelin, founder of the Sisters of Providence. In her charity work, Mother Gamelin served meals to her community and turned away no one away. The story of Mother Gamelin is posted in the nourishment room, in English and Spanish, to educate and inspire the NICU families.

"We are serving our community, and part of the ministry is through food," Garcia said. "Everyone is welcome. There's no shame. There's always dignity."

To transform the space for the nourishment room from what had been a waiting room, some remodeling was needed. A grant from insurance provider Wellpoint and other partnerships made money available. To enhance the room's welcoming nature, artwork was commissioned from a local artist who had been a NICU baby herself.

And the room is big enough for a children's area, where siblings can play and the family can share both food and time together.

What's next? Garcia said the hospital hopes to expand access to the nourishment room to pediatric families and prenatal patients, whose facilities are on the same floor as the NICU. The hospital is also collecting data and interviewing families after they take their newborns home, to get feedback on how the effort is working.

"It's not just we're only going to treat you and make sure that you have food when you're inpatient," Garcia said. "We want to make sure that those specific families with genuine food insecurity have their needs met once they are discharged home."

It's an effort that looks at nourishing families in a variety of ways, the organizers said.

"Nourishment has different meanings because our hospital cares," Neugebauer said. "We kind have the mission to care for the body, mind and spirit in our mission statement, and I love that nourishment really encompasses all of that.


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