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Federal grant to fund food-choice education program

By Sandy Broughton

During any one month, there are approximately 238,000 households receiving food stamps in Virginia. For a family of four, the estimated cost of its entire food supply for a month ranges from $340 if family members are extremely thrifty to $626 if they are moderate in purchases. For a family that relies on food stamps to make ends meet, wise food choices can make a huge difference-the difference between being able to pay the rent or to afford child care or medical care. But using limited food resources to obtain a healthy food intake requires nutrition knowledge, food skills, and planning.

That's why the Smart Choices Nutrition Education Program (SCNEP) was initiated in 1996. Virginia Tech has recently been awarded a $1.76-million grant by the federal Food and Nutrition Service, USDA, to implement the Smart Choices Nutrition Education Program (SCNEP) to teach and motivate food-stamp recipients to make behavioral changes that result in improved nutrition, better health, and wise use of food resources

The project, funded for the third year, is a joint undertaking of the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise in the College of Human Resources and Education and the Family and Consumer Sciences program of Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE). Ruby Cox, a Tech faculty member and VCE specialist in human nutrition, foods, and exercise, is the state SCNEP coordinator, and she is assisted in the program by several faculty members in the College of Human Resources and Education.

"The behaviors we see in food-stamp recipients-for instance drinking soda instead of milk or choosing fast-food and snack-type items-are not much different from the general population. The difference is that, for food-stamp households, it is an economic issue as well as a health issue. They simply can't afford bad food habits," Cox said

Can a family on food stamps stretch their resources and maintain a healthy diet? "The answer is yes, but it takes a lot of awareness and planning. To get the most out of food resources-and achieve the healthiest diet-foods for all meals and snacks need to be purchased at a grocery store and prepared at home," Cox said. "The food-stamp allowance does not allow for eating in restaurants, buying low-nutrient snacks, or ready-prepared foods at a supermarket deli. Those choices can really increase the amount of money a family must devote to food."

The SCNEP lesson series is based on the identified nutrition problems and educational level of clients and emphasizes hands-on learning activities. Food and nutrition needs of both the elderly and young families are addressed. "Food needs and preferences are very individual. Effective nutrition education must be personalized," Cox said. "We work with people across the lifespan, but we do not put people on therapeutic diets-that is the role of a physician or registered dietitian. What we offer is guidance on how to select and prepare low-cost meals that fulfill dietary requirements based on research, or on specific recommendations of the client's physician

Along with the education program, Cox and other Tech faculty members are conducting research with clients on food-related practices, preferences for receiving nutrition information, and management of diet-related chronic diseases and conditions such as diabetes and hypertension

Studies have also been done on the use of home-video lessons and other methods to identify the most economical and effective ways of teaching nutrition to limited-literacy individuals. Video lessons would be especially helpful with welfare-to-work clients. "We have found that participants respond well to peer education, in which a person from their own community is the conveyor of nutrition information," Cox said. "Part of what we do is train people in the community as program assistants to work with families their own home setting or neighborhood." Recently, a toll-free telephone hotline was initiated to recruit low-income clients into the program, to make referrals to other agencies, and to provide printed nutrition education by mail.

Though tracking food habits is difficult, assessments show that 90 percent of participants made improvements in food choices and practices as a result of SCNEP. They are eating more fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, the intake of fats and sweets has decreased, intake of dietary fiber, iron, calcium, and vitamins A, B6, and C have increased

More importantly, participants are increasing their nutrient intake and are doing more meal planning and label reading to select food with less sodium and fat. They are also doing a better job of food buying, providing breakfasts for children, and practicing food safety. At program exit, 40-percent fewer households ran out of food or food stamps before the end of the month. "One sign of program success is that clients are referring their family members and friends." Cox said

In addition there are some other benefits of the program which are hard to measure. Cox said "some clients gain confidence in themselves and feel as though they can do other things to improve their lives, like getting a job or a GED. We've seen some homemakers further their education and get jobs as a result of this program."

There are 46 SCNEP program offices state-wide and about two-thirds of Virginia's 110 counties and independent cities are covered by the food-stamp nutrition-education program. In 1997, 2,555 families or households were enrolled in the program, including 6,066 family members and 1,895 children under the age of 18. "We hope to reach about 8,000 food-stamp and other low-income families this year since the program is in full operation," Cox said

In addition to the USDA grant, SCNEP is supported by in-kind resources of local VCE offices, which are funded by state and local governments. Thirty-nine states have initiated similar nutrition-education programs through their Cooperative Extension networks.