COLUMBUS — Three years ago, one of Ohio State University Extension’s community nutrition programs started making a special effort to expand its reach to children and teens.
By any measure, the effort has been a wild success.
Known as SNAP-Ed, it’s the nutrition education program for recipients of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, and for other low-income Ohioans.
Ohio SNAP-Ed has always had a youth component, but in 2012, before the expansion began, it reached just 18,443 children and teens, said Pat Bebo, director of Community Nutrition for OSU Extension. Extension is the outreach arm of The Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.
Compare that to the number reached during the 2015 federal fiscal year that ended Sept. 30: 171,229. That’s an increase of 927 percent over 2012.
The program grew primarily by expanding its involvement with schools with a significant low-income population — those that have 50 percent or more students eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
“For the most part, schools are very receptive. They’re very interested in providing this information for their students,” said Bebo, who is also interim assistant director in charge of OSU Extension’s Family and Consumer Sciences program.
SNAP-Ed also works with libraries, preschools, childcare centers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program — “anywhere children are” — to provide nutrition programming, she said.
Helping young people make healthy food choices can have a long-lasting benefit and generate a ripple effect for the entire family, Bebo said.
“Prior to coming to Ohio, when I was in Massachusetts, we did an evaluation of parents of children who participated in our SNAP-Ed programs,” Bebo said. “It showed that children were change agents for the family.
“When children come home and say, ‘Let’s have water with dinner because soda is not the best choice,’ or ‘Let’s have vegetables with each meal,’ parents pay attention. If children say they want a healthier cereal with whole grains instead of the cereal with high sugar content, parents will buy that healthier cereal.
“Often what it takes is educating the child on what the difference is, and why certain options are better for them. And they’ll choose it. It’s a simple thing. They’re willing to learn anything.
“Children really can help the whole family change behaviors, which is one of the reasons why we really put an emphasis on reaching them.”
Bebo provides leadership for Extension’s county-based community nutrition programs, which include SNAP-Ed and the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP). Designed for low-income consumers, the federally funded programs focus on helping people choose higher quality, nutritionally dense foods and include other aspects of healthy living, including food safety and physical activity.
In 2015, SNAP-Ed, which is offered in 69 Ohio counties, also reached 40,766 adult participants. In addition, EFNEP, which is offered in 19 Ohio counties and is specifically geared for low-income families with children, reached 3,767 adults and 10,766 youths.
“These are probably the best-evaluated nutrition education programs around,” Bebo said. “Year after year, we see that people who participate increase their intake of fruits and vegetables and increase their food safety behaviors. It’s significant.”
Bebo related a story from Scioto County, where SNAP-Ed program assistants included taste-testing of mangoes in both their adult and school programs in September as a way to encourage eating a wider variety of produce.
The result? The produce manager at the local grocery store had trouble keeping mangoes in stock.
“He wasn’t sure what was going on,” Bebo said. “This speaks to the impact of children learning what different fruits and vegetables taste like, and then turning around and influencing the family.
Larger issues loom
Despite the nutrition programs’ positive impact on participants, the issue of hunger is more complex than many people realize. But it’s something Bebo considers daily.
According to a USDA report released in September, 7.5 percent of Ohio households experienced “very low food security” from 2012 to 2014. That was an increase from Ohio’s 6.4 percent average from 2009 to 2011. And it’s worse than every state but Arkansas, Missouri and Maine. Nationwide, the prevalence of very low food security has held steady over the last few years at 5.6 percent.
“Food insecurity” is the term used for households that face uncertainty or limited ability to provide enough food.
As part of a team working on a special project for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the national organization of nutrition professionals, Bebo examined how registered dietitians could get engaged in community initiatives designed to help fight hunger.
“We have all these supports,” Bebo said, including community gardens, food banks and food pantries, “healthy corner store” programs, farmers market programs that help stretch SNAP benefit dollars, and educational programs such as those Bebo oversees.
“But even with all these programs, individual food insecurity isn’t getting better,” Bebo said. “When a family goes to a food pantry, we’re plugging a hole.
“It helps — significantly — but it doesn’t get to the reason why people are food insecure.” What’s needed, Bebo said, is additional research on the underlying issues of food insecurity.
Bebo believes substantive behavior changes take place when messages are reinforced in many different ways.
“We can’t solve these issues in a silo,” she said. When children hear a nutrition message in a SNAP-Ed program, are presented with healthier choices in school meals, and see more whole-grain breakfast cereals advertised on television, the combination makes a difference.
“When you put messages in front of people in different ways, you will influence them to change.”
OSU Extension’s Community Nutrition programs are continually improving, Bebo said, trying new ways to reach target audiences. They are part of the larger support system addressing food insecurity, but Bebo wants to continue to work on the underlying issues that remain elusive.
“There absolutely has to be that safety net. It’s critically important for people to have that support and have ways they can provide nutritious food for their families,” she said.
“But what are we not following through on? Are we missing something that would make a foundational difference?
“I think the conversation we need to have has to be oriented around policy and culture, and we have to tease out the sociological and psychological components. It’s a very complicated issue and we need to learn to understand it so we can target interventions that truly will address a family’s food security.”