Editor: March is National Nutrition Month.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- It's the success stories that really paint the picture of Ohio State University Extension's Community Nutrition Programs.
The numbers provide broad brushstrokes of the programs' impact: More than 50,000 Ohioans in more than four out of five of Ohio's counties attended classes offered by the Family Nutrition Program (FNP) or the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP).
Evaluations from each program, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and geared to low-income residents, show remarkable outcomes. But it's the stories of the people whose lives are changed because of them that show their true influence:
- The Cuyahoga County woman who was at first denied a job with a catering company because she needed more education; when she presented her EFNEP certificate, she was hired -- and soon regained custody of her daughter.
- The Wayne County family whose 6-year-old daughter attended FNP's nutrition programs at Summer Food Service Program sites and soon began drinking more milk, asking for more vegetables, and thoroughly washing her hands -- teaching her family in the process.
- The Ross County woman who said she and her son not only began eating healthier but started putting money in savings after taking EFNEP classes.
"National Nutrition Month recognizes that the type, quality and amount of food play a vital role in overall health, and there's a need for continuing nutrition education on a wide scale," said Joyce McDowell, leader of Community Nutrition Programs for OSU Extension. "That's precisely what we do in both FNP and EFNEP."
Because of their funding sources, both programs track data according to the federal fiscal year. Information shared here was collected from Oct. 1, 2009 through Sept. 30, 2010.
Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program
Last year, EFNEP was offered in 18 Ohio counties, reaching 5,025 adults and 7,693 children.
EFNEP programs for adults consist of a series of eight classes on selecting, buying, preparing and storing foods to meet nutritional needs on a limited budget. The program targets families at or below 185 percent of poverty level with children living at home; counties eligible for EFNEP funding are determined by federal guidelines.
The classes are taught by paraprofessionals who are often from the neighborhoods where they teach.
"When you're part of the community, it's easier to build a trusting relationship and helps people really learn," said Maria Carmen Lambea, director of Ohio EFNEP. "That face-to-face contact, and the opportunity to practice some of these skills, makes a difference. Our participants not only learn what to do, but how to do it, and so they're ready to try it at home."
Last year, Ohio EFNEP instructors began using a new "Eating Smart, Being Active" curriculum for their adult classes, which includes more hands-on activities and an increased emphasis on physical fitness, and it's had a big effect.
"All of our behavior changes increased by 7 to 10 percentage points when we started using 'Eating Smart, Being Active,'" said Lauren Melnick, EFNEP program specialist in Cuyahoga County. "Participants really enjoy the food tasting, and they see how easy it is to make it. That makes a big impact."
Some of the largest improvements have been in physical activity, Melnick said. Now, each class includes a fitness component, and EFNEP participants receive exercise bands to assist with strength training.
"We generally do it in 10-minute increments, and people see it's easy to work into their daily routine," Melnick said. "If it's a nice day, we might walk outside, or we'll put some music on and dance, or do some jogging in place or some kick-boxing-like moves."
Last year, 64 percent of participants graduated from the eight-class series. Adult graduates participated in an average of eight lessons each, for a total of 25,050 lessons taught in 2010. Among the graduates:
- 90 percent improved in one or more nutrition practices, including considering healthy food choices when deciding what to feed their family; preparing foods without adding salt; using "Nutrition Facts" on food labels to make food choices; eating a wider variety of fruits and vegetables; reducing the consumption of soft drinks; and choosing more low-fat foods.
- 84 percent improved in at least one "food resource management" practice, including planning meals in advance and comparing prices and using lists when shopping; 43 percent reported less risk of running out of food before the end of the month.
- 65 percent improved food safety practices, including properly thawing foods, using a meat thermometer to test if foods are done and washing utensils properly.
- 60 percent were moderately or very active (more than 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week) upon graduation, up from 41 percent at the beginning of the sessions.
EFNEP also offers programs for children in urban counties. They reported eating a wider variety of healthy foods; increased knowledge of nutrition; better ability to select low-cost nutritious foods; and improved food preparation and safety practices.
Family Nutrition Program
FNP was offered in 66 Ohio counties last year, reaching more than 41,000 individuals. The program targets families who are eligible for food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Funded by the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service, Ohio's FNP program, also known as SNAP-Ed, partners with the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services to reach low-income families who are eligible for federal food assistance. The format of the classes FNP offers varies from a single session to a series, and 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.
Like EFNEP, "We not only teach nutrition, but how to manage limited resources," said Ana Claudia Zubieta, director of Ohio FNP. "That not only helps people's health status, but it affects people psychologically and emotionally. If you have children going to bed hungry, it really affects your morale. Helping people be food secure also helps them get their children to school and get them to work."
Last year, FNP made 84,124 direct contacts (with some individuals attending more than one program), including 14,115 contacts with children through Summer Food Service Program sites, where FNP instructors taught children the basics of nutrition and food safety. Participants reported positive behavior changes across all categories, including choosing low-fat milk and dairy products; eating more and a wider variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains; using the Nutrition Facts labels to make healthy food choices; being more physically active; and better adherence to food safety practices.
This year in Miami County, FNP is piloting an in-school program using the OrganWise Guys (OWG) curriculum in the city of Troy's elementary schools. OWG is a comprehensive, commercially available curriculum built around likable characters, including Hardy Heart and the Kidney Brothers, which personify the major organs of the body to teach about the importance of eating well and being physically active. FNP paid to pilot the curriculum in four elementary schools that have a high percentage of children participating in the free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch programs; Troy City Schools is footing the bill for the district's other two elementary schools. In all, the program is reaching nearly 2,000 students.
As part of the program, Lisa Goodall, OSU Extension's FNP program assistant in Miami County, led kick-off assemblies and conducted teacher orientations in the fall, and visits each school once a month with "food of the month" cafeteria tastings. She also worked with cafeteria staff to help make small changes that could have a big impact -- placing fruits and vegetables at the beginning of the food service line, for example. Studies of OWG programs nationwide show significant improvements in weight and blood pressure, as well as higher standardized test scores, in children who participate in the program.
"It's a phenomenal curriculum," Goodall said. "It's upbeat, it's funny, and there are materials that can be used throughout the school -- CDs for music teachers, a 'Wisercise' fitness program for gym teachers -- and it meets Ohio's requirements for health education and physical activity in schools. I definitely see enthusiasm when I'm at the schools for the food of the month."
In fact, the food Goodall brought in November -- baked sweet potato "fries" -- were such a hit that they showed up on the school cafeterias' menu twice in December. "I really think it's making an impact," she said.
McDowell said both FNP and EFNEP address major public health concerns.
"We are geared to reach low-income audiences, and that's where you really see the health disparities," she said. "Low-income individuals are more apt to experience obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, cancer -- all of which can be at least in part prevented with healthier lifestyles."
In addition, many poor communities lack a basic health care infrastructure, Zubieta said. "If we don't offer these types of programs, these people have nowhere else to turn."
For more information on OSU Extension's Community Nutrition Programs, see Extension's Family and Consumer Sciences web site at http://fcs.osu.edu and choose "Community Nutrition."