COLUMBUS, Ohio -- As National Nutrition Month swings into gear, dietitians and nutrition specialists hope to inspire people from all walks of life to eat more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and make other healthy choices every day.
March is designated as National Nutrition Month by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) to help spread the word on the importance of making informed food choices and developing sound eating and physical activity habits. This year, the theme of "Get Your Plate in Shape" is based on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines and recommendations in the related Choose MyPlate website (http://www.ChooseMyPlate.gov).
In Ohio, a significant part of that effort occurs year-round thanks to the Family Nutrition Program (FNP) and the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), two federally funded programs coordinated by Ohio State University Extension's Community Nutrition Programs. From October 2010 to September 2011, FNP reached nearly 79,000 adults and children in 65 counties; EFNEP reached nearly 12,000 in 18 counties.
Besides basic nutrition principles, the programs teach participants about food safety and budgeting.
"Participants report saving money on food bills with the menu planning and food preparation skills learned in the classes," said Joyce McDowell, leader of Community Nutrition Programs for OSU Extension. "They report saving time by planning ahead and not making extra trips to the store. And, they feel more in control of their health because they have learned what foods to increase and which ones to decrease."
The programs wouldn't be nearly as fruitful without strong partnerships and collaboration with other organizations and agencies, McDowell said. For example:
- In Montgomery County, FNP has offered nutrition classes at the Good Samaritan Hospital's Homeless Clinic for seven years. When the clinic needed to expand and move to a new site, it planned space for a teaching kitchen specifically because of the clinic's experience with the FNP program, said Diane Cummins, clinical manager for Good Samaritan's Homeless Clinic.
"A number of our clients have not had the experience of living on their own," Cummins said. "We see men who went from living with their parents to living with a wife and who are now on their own, or young people who don't know how to cook properly or safely or how to use their resources wisely. They use their food assistance in a week and go hungry for three weeks.
"Katie (Schroeder, FNP program assistant) comes twice a month and her class is always popular. When we were moving to our new facility, we wanted to know what we could do to expand this program. Now that we have a kitchen and prep area, Katie arranged a train-the-trainer program through Extension, and we now have volunteers who offer even more nutrition classes than Katie can do on her own."
- In Franklin County, Karen Colonia-Abel taught EFNEP lessons to workers in the Our Lady of Guadalupe Food Pantry who now choose healthier options when available from the Mid-Ohio Food Bank, such as canned fruit packed in juice instead of syrup; 1 percent milk instead of 2 percent; and breakfast cereal with higher fiber and less sugar.
"They're trying to supply people with the foods they want, but healthier versions," Colonia-Abel said.
- In Darke County, the Department of Job and Family Services has partnered with FNP "since at least 1992," said Kevin Brumbaugh, administrator of the county's JFS financial/medical unit.
"We refer our food assistance recipients to FNP classes to help them stretch their food assistance dollars as much as possible and make their meals as nutritious as possible, especially for the children," Brumbaugh said. "It's been a very useful tool, and they've offered a very valuable service to our clients."
The FNP and EFNEP programs have similar goals but use different methods to achieve them.
For example, FNP offers both single-session and series of classes geared to families who are eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service, Ohio FNP instructors also offer basic food and nutrition demonstrations at local health fairs, community events, food pantries, senior centers, libraries, public housing and many other venues.
Last year, 97 percent of FNP participants reported learning new information, while 89 percent reported plans to make changes as a result of what they learned. In addition, participants reported a 26 percent increase in the frequency of drinking milk in place of another beverage; a 41 percent increase in the frequency of using food labels to choose whole grain foods; and a 13 percent decrease in the frequency of running out of food before the end of the month. FNP provides 75 jobs in Ohio.
"We value the relationship with our partner agencies, as this is the most effective method to access our target audience," said Ana Claudia Zubieta, director of Ohio FNP. "When this relationship works well, participants get the best service, and our program the best outcome."
EFNEP instructors offer a series of eight lessons to low-income families with young children and a series of four classes to children in collaboration with elementary schools, Summer Food Service Programs, and after-school programs. Last year, 90 percent of adult participants who completed at least six of the eight classes reported improving nutrition practices; 83 percent improved one or more food resource management practices; 64 percent improved food safety practices; 40 percent ran out of food less often; and 34 percent increased their physical activity. EFNEP provides 65 jobs in Ohio.
"We collaborate with several food pantries, and food pantry directors observe that our EFNEP participants access the food pantry less often, as they have learned how to plan menus and prepare meals to stretch their food dollars," said Maria Carmen Lambea, director of Ohio EFNEP. Some of EFNEP's food pantry collaborators now not only offer healthier choices, but do a better job combining foods, such as tuna with macaroni, to help clients make a complete meal, she said.
The message of the National Nutrition Month's "Get Your Plate in Shape" theme is the same as what FNP and EFNEP teach every day, including:
- Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.
- Make half your grains whole grains.
- Switch to fat-free or low-fat milk.
- Vary your protein choices, including seafood, beans, lean meat, poultry, eggs and nuts.
- Cut back on sodium and empty calories from solid fats and added sugars.
- Enjoy your food, but eat less.
- Be physically active.
For more on National Nutrition Month, see the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website at http://www.eatright.org. For more about OSU Extension's Community Nutrition Programs, see http://go.osu.edu/ExtNutr.