Low-income families often struggle to select satisfying, healthy foods while working within the budgetary limits of food assistance programs. In recent years, states have experimented with nutrition education programs that seek to make these everyday decisions easier.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) helps millions of people afford food through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps. In fact, about one in seven Americans gets help putting food on the table from SNAP. Alongside the core SNAP benefits, the federal government and other agencies spend hundreds of millions of dollars per year on SNAP education, or SNAP-Ed, classes and other learning experiences meant to encourage people to make healthy food choices on a limited budget.
SNAP-Ed programs reach a vulnerable audience of low-income Americans who may not know how to shop for and prepare healthy foods for their families. Educational programs can help address this obstacle, but only if they are effective. To get a sense of how well these programs work, and how well our public money is being spent, RTI helped evaluate SNAP-Ed programs in seven states.
The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service chose eight SNAP-Ed programs for evaluation, including programs in New York, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Michigan, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Nevada. They were aimed at different age groups, ranging from preschoolers to seniors.
Our evaluation of SNAP-Ed programs drew on our extensive evaluation and survey research capabilities and expertise in research design. Because the programs themselves were so diverse—classroom sessions for young children, online education for young women, workshops for seniors—we tailored our data collection methods to fit each one. We worked with each of the agencies to survey participants before and after taking part in the SNAP-Ed programs.
Across programs, our measures of success included an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption. For four of the eight programs, we also looked at the use of low-fat and fat-free milk instead of regular or reduced-fat.
We found that four of the SNAP-Ed programs had significant effects on participants’ food choices. This held true across the range of participant demographics, as the four most effective programs included one in a child care setting, two in elementary schools, and one in senior centers. For example, participants in one of the school-based programs were eating about one-third of a cup more of fruits and vegetables per day after the program than they were before. People in the seniors’ program increased their fruit and vegetable consumption by about half a cup.
A key difference between programs that got significant results and those that didn’t was experience. The most effective programs had been operating for several years. Remaining challenges include boosting programs aimed at young children by finding more effective ways to teach their parents and other responsible adults how to make better food choices.
Identifying Model Programs to Extend the Value of SNAP-Ed
Our findings point to a promising future for SNAP-Ed. Not every state provides nutrition education alongside SNAP. Using our evaluations of existing programs, states can learn what works. Further, our results point to the need to let these programs gain traction, because their impact grows stronger the longer they remain in operation.
When SNAP-Ed succeeds, it leads directly to a healthier diet for a low-income population for whom healthy choices can be difficult. A healthier diet leads to a lower risk of chronic health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Good-quality nutrition education programs, then, reduce the burden of disease and improve the health of entire communities.