Study: Nutrition education program can improve children’s at-home consumption of fruits and vegetables

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NC— A child's at-home consumption of fruits and/or vegetables and/or use of low-fat or fat-free milk can be improved by some nutrition education programs in low-income child care centers and elementary schools, according to a study by researchers from RTI International, Altarum Institute and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In an effort to identify nutrition education interventions that can be replicated by others, the study, published in Health Education & Behavior, examined how selected Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) interventions in six child care centers and elementary schools affected children's at-home fruit and vegetable consumption and use of low-fat/fat-free milk.

"Most children are not eating the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables," said Pam Williams, Ph.D., senior research scientist in RTI's Center for Communication Science and lead author on the study. "Our findings show that SNAP-Ed has the potential to improve dietary habits among children attending elementary schools and child care centers serving largely low-income populations."

SNAP-Ed encourages participants to make healthy food choices on a limited budget, which includes increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables and choosing lower fat dairy products. SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp program, provides nutrition assistance benefits to nearly 47.6 million people in low-income households.

Researchers found children who participated in the Eat Well Play Hard in Child Care Settings program consumed significantly more cups of vegetables and were considerably more likely to drink or use low-fat/fat-free milk than children who were not involved in the program. As part of the six week program, weekly newsletters were distributed to parents, in addition to six one-hour sessions offered to parents.

In elementary school settings, the study found children who participated in the Building and Strengthening Iowa Community Support (BASICS) for Nutrition and Physical Activity Program increased their total fruit and vegetable consumption significantly.

Children in families exposed to the BASICS Plus intervention, which included a social marketing campaign along with the other BASICS program components, were also significantly more likely to drink or use low-fat/fat-free milk than those who did not participate in the program. The study also found the BASICS program increased how often children ate more than one type of fruit, and BASICS Plus increased the amount of days in which children consumed more than one kind of vegetable.

"Our study indicated that SNAP-Ed interventions that take place in the classroom can affect food consumed in the home, which typically is not examined in these types of studies.  It is also notable that a couple of the interventions increased vegetable consumption, which is typically difficult to achieve with young children," Williams said. 

Highlights

  • A child’s at-home consumption of fruits and/or vegetables and/or use of low-fat or fat-free milk can be improved by some nutrition education programs in low-income child care centers and elementary schools
  • The study examined how selected SNAP-Ed interventions in six child care centers and elementary schools affected children's at-home fruit and vegetable consumption and use of low-fat/fat-free milk