This program helps low-income families eat healthier

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Credit: John Moore

Credit: John Moore

In some households, food insecurity has tripled since the start of the pandemic.

In addition to math and reading lessons, many third graders in Alabama’s low-income communities learn about nutrition from animated characters like Shining Rainbow, who loves colorful vegetables, and Muscle Max, who eats plenty of lean protein. The students also take the “Vow of the Warrior” in their classrooms.

“I will enter into the quest for health, strength, and wisdom. I will try new fruits and vegetables,” the vow begins.

It’s all part of a state SNAP-Ed curriculum called Body Quest, which applies what Sondra Parmer, the administrator of SNAP-Ed programs for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, calls “multilevel intervention” — and it turns out it has had a significant impact on children and families since its launch in 2010.

Most people are familiar with SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, which help address food insecurity among vulnerable populations. SNAP-Ed is a companion program that provides comprehensive nutrition education to many of the same families, who may be struggling to put together healthy meals on a limited budget.

“When we look at the data for the program, we can say with certainty— because we’re comparing a treatment and a control group — that because of Body Quest, these kids are eating better,” said Parmer.

Now, a new study has aggregated data across eight states in the Southeast to evaluate the broader impact of programs like these for the first time. Published in the Journal of Nutritional Science at the end of September, the study found adults and children in SNAP-Ed programs are more likely to make a number of positive behavior changes, including eating more fruit and vegetables.

And while the data is from 2017, the results come at a time when advocates say helping food-insecure families eat well is more important than ever.

One analysis found nearly a quarter of American households faced food insecurity during the pandemic, more than double the number that did before COVID-19.

In households with children, food insecurity tripled.

In the face of hunger, prioritizing healthy eating is even harder, especially in low-income communities where few nutritious foods are even available. And those communities have long suffered higher rates of diet-related diseases such as diabetes.

Based on the study results, SNAP-Ed may be one effective tool to help people in low-income communities eat more of the foods that prevent diet-related diseases and the devastating impact of COVID-19.

The programs aim to educate SNAP recipients, but there is a lot of flexibility in terms of what each program looks like.

They include direct education programs such as lessons and cooking classes and social marketing campaigns to disseminate messages about healthy eating.

In recent years, there has been emphasis placed on the implementation of policy, systems and environmental (PSE) changes – or long-term shifts that make healthy choices easier.

For example, a school might ban soda and other sugary beverages (policy); install new water-bottle-filling fountains with promotional posters nearby (environment); and make a plan to stock vending machines with healthier alternatives (systems).

In Alabama, educators also plant and maintain teaching gardens, teach food bank clients how to cook with produce they are unfamiliar with and more.

The flexibility given to each state to craft programs that meet the needs of its unique communities is one of SNAP-Ed’s biggest strengths, said Tracy Fox, a nutritionist by training who has been working on federal nutrition and nutrition education policy for more than 20 years.

But it also makes collecting consistent data and evaluating that data in a uniform way difficult.

To undertake the research, the Public Health Institute created a working group with representatives from SNAP-Ed agencies in eight states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.

Results showed participants ate about a third of a cup of more fruit and a quarter of a cup more vegetables per day than they had before participating in the programs.

“It may seem like a very small amount of fruits and vegetables on your plate,” said Julia McCarthy, interim deputy director at the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education and Policy, but it is a significant increase, especially given most Americans fall far short of meeting dietary guidelines in this realm.

Researchers also found that individuals in the study reported that they were more likely to increase the variety of produce in their diets, drink more water and fewer sugary beverages and read nutrition labels while shopping.

The study was limited by the lack of a control group, said Amy DeLisio, the director of the Center for Wellness and Nutrition at the Public Health Institute and a co-author of the study. But “in general, [the data] is showing SNAP-Ed works,” she concluded.

McCarthy said she was excited to find more than 700 policy, system and environmental changes being used within the SNAP-Ed programs they analyzed, which she thought pointed to the fact that changing people’s environments is a crucial component of nutrition education.

“You can’t teach people how to eat well without healthy foods,” she said, “just like you can’t teach people how to read without books.”

Experts said the study was a starting point for more research that needs to be done across the country. But at this moment in time, the results are especially meaningful.

“There are a lot of Americans who have lost their jobs and are now in poverty,” DeLisio said, “and they might not know how to stretch their food dollars or select healthier foods on a budget.”

Regardless of what the future brings, DeLisio said she believes the data supports ongoing funding for SNAP-Ed. McCarthy echoed that sentiment, emphasizing the “unnecessary division” that has often existed between hunger and nutrition work.

“COVID-19 has exposed just how vulnerable diet-related diseases have made us,” she said. “Healthy eating has to be a top priority.”

Lisa Held writes for Civil Eats, a daily news source about the American food system. The organization brings together over 100 contributors who discuss sustainable agriculture.

These stories are part of the SoJo Exchange of COVID-19 stories from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.

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