RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — A nutrition education program in low-income child care centers can improve a child's at-home consumption of vegetables and low-fat/fat-free milk, according to a study by researchers from RTI International, Altarum Institute, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The study was supported by the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service.
The study, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, is the first to examine and find that a multicomponent nutrition-education program for low-income preschool-aged children and parents in a child care setting can affect a child's at-home diet.
"Many preschool-aged children are not meeting the recommended daily amount of fruits, vegetables, and low-fat and fat-free dairy products," said Pam Williams, Ph.D., senior research scientist in RTI's Center for Communication Science and co-author of the study. "Our research shows the potential value of nutrition education programs that take place in child care centers to impact what children eat at home."
The USDA recommends that children two to five years of age eat one to two cups of vegetables daily and one to 1.5 cups of fruit each day. Nearly 60 percent of U.S. children ages three to five years old attend a center-based child care program, according to the U.S. Department of Education, which can provide an opportunity to improve the nutrition of preschool-aged children.
Researchers found that children who participated in the nutrition-education program were about 39 percent more likely to drink or use low-fat/fat-free milk on their cereal than children who were not exposed to the program. The study also found a significant increase in the number of cups of vegetables that these children consumed at home each day.
The study examined the State of New York's Eat Well Play Hard in Child Care Settings nutrition-education program administered by registered dietitian nutritionists in low-income child care settings. The initiative is part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Education program aimed at increasing children's consumption of fruits and vegetables, and encouraging children to drink low-fat/fat-free milk.
Researchers sampled 24 child care centers that serve low-income families and receive reimbursement for meals and snacks served, as part of the USDA's Child and Adult Care Food Program in New York. Twelve child care centers took part in an intervention, consisting of multilevel messaging targeted to preschoolers, parents and child care staff.
As part of the program, registered dietitian nutritionists provided nutrition education to both children and parents during a six- to ten-week period. Parents were asked to complete a mail or telephone survey at the beginning and end of the program to report their child's at-home consumption of fruits, vegetables and milk.
At the child care centers, children participated in 30-minute nutrition education classes about trying new foods, eating a variety of vegetables and fruit, using healthier diary products, and eating healthier snacks. Nutritionists also provided training sessions to child care center staff about identifying areas of policy needed to improve nutrition at the center, and how to incorporate messages about nutrition into the classroom.
While children's vegetable and low-fat/fat-free milk consumption improved, the study found that the program did not have a significant impact on parental offerings of fruits and vegetables, or fruit consumption since most children were already close to meeting the recommended amount of fruit.