New Haven’s Healthy Start program received a $5.4 million federal grant — to the delight of New Haven’s leaders, who gathered at the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven on Friday.

Local and state officials celebrated the announcement of the grant, which will be dedicated to the city’s Healthy Start Program. The program, which began in 1997, serves women and their babies in New Haven and aims to lower the city’s high infant mortality rate. It is one of 87 programs nationwide to successfully compete for the $65 million total federal aid given by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services to reduce high infant mortality rates and improve maternal care in high risk communities.

“This news of sustained viability from the five-year federal grant is in fact joyous news,” said Mayor Toni Harp. “I believe deeply that those in public service have a special obligation to those at the start of life, those in the latter stages of life and those who remain vulnerable in between.”

Also in attendance were Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, William Ginsberg, president and CEO of The Community Foundation and Ken Harris, director of the New Haven Healthy Start Program.

Harp also pointed out the program’s role as a pioneer in the community. The Healthy Start Program was one of the first resources in the city to offer prenatal and prenatal care aiming to lower the infant mortality rate and has been a model for many other similar projects, Harp said.

Data provided by The Community Foundation reveals both how much progress the city has made and the challenges it still faces.

Since 1997, the Healthy Start has received federal grants totaling $16.9 million and has served nearly 16,000 participants, more than 8,000 of them infants. The overall infant mortality rate among program participants from 2005 to 2009 is 3.7 deaths per 1,000 live births, while the 2003 to 2009 rate for the city as a whole — including participants and non-participants — was 12.1 deaths per 1,000 live births.

According to the Central Intelligence Agency’s website, the nationwide average is 6.17 per 1000 live births, nearly half New Haven’s average rate.

Race and ethnicity also affect the infant mortality rate. In 2006–2010, the infant death rate among babies of African-American women was above 30 per 1000 births, compared to 13.6 of Hispanic, and 10.6 of white women. As a result, the program focuses greatly on supporting the African-American community and aims to eradicate the disparity among different ethnicities.

“The data that flags the difference in infant mortality rates between the city and the suburb, different areas in the city, different races, and ethnicities define a continued challenge in this community,” Ginsberg said. “The challenge persists in New Haven and the commitment persists.”

A new focus for the project moving forward is the support and collaboration with men and fathers and to include them in the process of childbirth and early stages of infancy, Harris said.

This is the first time since the project’s inception that it has to compete for federal funds, DeLauro said. She added that it “speaks volumes” about the work of the New Haven Healthy Start program that it successfully received the grant. The New Haven Healthy Start program not only achieved close to its target sum of $5.7 million, but it did so against the national trend. The total federal aid allocated was $65 million, compared to $100 million in previous years, signaling a drop of around 33 percent.

The New Haven branch received a 25 percent increase in its grant reward.