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How Research Shapes Vital Nutrition Programs

Posted by Melissa Abelev, (Acting) Assistant Deputy Administrator for Policy Support in Food and Nutrition
Feb 21, 2017
Nutritional research is key to helping millions of Americans achieve healthier lifestyles.
Nutritional research is key to helping millions of Americans achieve healthier lifestyles.

During the month of April we will take a closer look at USDA’s Groundbreaking Research for a Revitalized Rural America, highlighting ways USDA researchers are improving the lives of Americans in ways you might never imagine, such as using research to inform policy decisions about our nutrition assistance programs, which reach 1 in 4 Americans.

America’s nutrition safety net has a broad reach.  SNAP serves millions of hardworking American families, WIC benefits about half of the nation’s infants each year, and the National School Lunch Program touches the lives of about 31 million children every school day, including 21 million low-income children.  Because these and other Federal nutrition assistance programs are a critical resource for families seeking a healthy diet with limited resources, USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service knows the importance of shaping them with evidence gathered from rigorous research.

Several flagship studies illustrate how FNS uses research to build the knowledge base about our programs and make continuous improvements to meet the highest nutrition standards:

  • The School Nutrition and Dietary Assessment (SNDA) series goes into schools every five years to determine how well school meals are meeting the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  We use rigorous, validated measures, including 24-hour dietary recalls and menu nutrient analyses, on a nationally-representative sample of schools to build our knowledge base and analyze the nutritional quality of schools meals.  Information from these studies helps FNS shape the technical assistance we provide to states and school districts to ensure their meals meet the highest dietary standards.  The fifth SNDA study will begin data collection in schools next school year and will provide FNS with a detailed picture of how well schools are meeting updated meal patterns required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
  • Our partnership with the Institute of Medicine ensures that the food packages prescribed in WIC reflect the state of the science for nutrition standards.  The latest IOM recommendations form the basis for recently-finalized standards that ensure that nearly 8.6 million women, infants, and children receive supplemental foods each day that directly address their health needs.  And we are already launching the next review to keep the packages up-to-date.
  • Because the WIC packages are designed in part to support breastfeeding – the medically-preferred feeding practice for most infants – FNS launched a study to determine the impact of the packages on that outcome.  The findings helped inform nutrition education efforts that align with the food packages to increase breastfeeding rates.  And we are currently conducting a nationally-representative study of WIC nutrition education.  This will help identify aspects of the program where we could focus additional resources or technical assistance, as well as highlight opportunities for information sharing among states or regions.
  • We are also seeking innovative approaches to help SNAP participants make healthy choices.  The Healthy Incentives Pilot tested the effect of incentives at the point of sale to encourage fruit and vegetable purchases and increase consumption of these healthful foods.  Initial findings found that such incentives increased consumption by about 25 percent.
  • A study we conducted on the effect of SNAP participation looked at SNAP’s role in helping families cope with food insecurity. We found that those who received SNAP for six months reported significantly lower rates of food insecurity.  These results were true for households with and without children, and for households in both rural and urban areas, highlighting SNAP’s broad effectiveness. Through research, we were able to confirm that SNAP is working to reduce food insecurity.

These are just a few of the many studies FNS conducts to build the knowledge base to inform and shape these vital programs.  Research is essential in achieving FNS’ goals of reducing childhood hunger and improving nutrition in programs with high integrity every day.  After all, if a healthier next generation is our aim, knowledge is an important part of that path.

Category/Topic: Food and Nutrition