Marketing to parents boosts positive effects of school nutrition classes, RTI researchers find

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NC — A combination of nutrition education for children and marketing targeted at parents resulted in children eating more fruit and vegetables and using low-fat milk products, according to a new study by researchers at RTI International.

The study examined the effects of adding a social marketing campaign to a nutrition education program in Iowa elementary schools. The intervention was part of SNAP-Ed, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program's Nutrition Education initiative. The study was published recently in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The social marketing campaigns took place in 2011 and targeted the same low-income population as SNAP. Billboards, TV and radio ads, and decals and live demonstrations in grocery stores and other community settings advised consumers to replace unhealthy snacks with fruits and vegetables, and to serve low-fat milk to children over age 2.

The researchers measured children's consumption of fruits, vegetables, and low-fat milk in three geographic areas: one where school children received the nutrition education curriculum, but no social marketing campaign; one where school children received the nutrition education curriculum and the community-focused social marketing campaign; and one comparison area that received neither the curriculum nor the social marketing. They concluded that the marketing campaign reached parents and led them to change their children's diets.

"Young kids eat what is available to them in the household," said Johnathan Blitstein, Ph.D., a research psychologist at RTI and the study's lead author. "The social marketing campaign is a good way to get parents' attention and create more of a family context for dietary change."

The "Pick a Better Snack" message was part of the nutrition education children received at school. In the areas where the marketing campaign was tested, parents got the same message through TV and radio ads. Live demonstrations in grocery stores, held early in the month when people tend to spend their SNAP benefits, featured college students making the same snacks shown in the ads. 

The second message, "Their Bodies Change – So Should Their Milk" included display ads at bus stations, WIC offices and other locations that fit the targeted population. The ads showed children holding pictures of themselves as babies.

Eating more fruits and vegetables and switching to lower-fat milk products both have the potential to improve children's health, said Christine Hradek, of Iowa State University, who worked on the marketing campaign.

"Pick a Better Snack" showed that it can be easy to make nutritious choices at a time of day when children often go for something less healthful. 

"Children eat a lot of their calories from snacks," Hradek said. "When you're targeting part of a child's diet to change, snacks are an important part of that."

"Their Bodies Change" was aimed at parents, many of whom had the impression that low-fat milk was not as nutritious as whole milk, Hradek said. In fact, low-fat milk contains the same amount of protein and other nutrients, but with fewer calories and less saturated fat.

Many Iowans choose whole milk regardless of their age, Hradek said. When WIC benefits changed in 2010 to cover only 1 percent or fat-free milk for children over 2, recipients were concerned. The marketing program helped alleviate their confusion.

The study was one of many RTI has done at the request of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service to evaluate the nutrition education programs that various states run in conjunction with SNAP.