Study: Impact of early school-based nutrition education program

Research presented on Oct. 29 at the American Public Health Association 140th Annual Meeting & Exposition assessed the effectiveness and impact of early school-based nutrition programs on the knowledge and behaviors of kindergarten students and first- and second-graders.

The study conducted by Kelli Williams, Ph.D., R.D., L.D., and a team of dietetics professors at Marshall University in West Virginia also looked at the effectiveness of school lessons as delivered by interns and registered dieticians.

Ten dietetic interns and two registered dieticians taught weekly nutrition lessons over a nine-week period in kindergarten, first-grade, and second-grade classrooms in a two-county region of Southern West Virginia. The lessons incorporated education about healthy food choices and the benefits of physical activity, as well as the importance of food safety. Twelve public elementary schools participated; each school was required to have at least 50 percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced lunches.

The intervention — funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service through SNAP-Ed Connection — used a mixed-method research approach to assess the effectiveness of the program. Measures included pre- and post-testing student knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors through questionnaires, as well as teacher surveys and focus groups. The post test was completed by 842 K-2nd grade students.

Results suggest that school-based nutrition programs targeting this age group may be more effective in changing children’s behaviors related to food choices and food safety when dietetic interns deliver the lessons versus registered dieticians. Possible reasons for this include the impact of academics (i.e., the interns were regularly observed, and they received feedback on their presentation styles) and age (i.e., the interns tended to be younger than the registered dieticians).

“Dietetic interns and registered dietitians are uniquely prepared to educate young children about healthy eating. Interestingly, our study indicates that interns may be most effective; possibly due to their ability to relate to younger students and/or academic influences.” said the study’s Jana Hovland, M.S., R.D., L.D., at Marshall University.

“Further research is needed to explore these theories and to learn how to most effectively educate and impact the health behaviors of this age group,” Hovland added.

Currently, the researchers are developing more age-appropriate tools to continue monitoring the success of the program. For more information, view the poster here.

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