Nutrition education helps stretch meager food budgets

03/03/04

ITHACA, N.Y. -- The United States might control much of the planet's wealth, but more than 10 percent of its households don't always have enough food to eat. One way to reduce the incidence of families running out of food, a significant nutrition study at Cornell University has found, is education in food selection and resource management.

That education can help families cope with limited food budgets may come as a surprise to economists, says Jamie Dollahite, associate professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell and the director of New York state's Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP). "Economists point out that food insecurity arises primarily from economic constraints, and therefore, they would expect nutrition education to have little impact on food insecurity," she says. Food insecurity is defined as "the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways."

EFNEP, a community-based nutrition education program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, targets families that are at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty line (defined as an income of no more than $18,850 for a family of four in the continental United States); in New York state, 80 percent of EFNEP participants live at or below the poverty line.

"However, in one of the few studies to evaluate the effects of nutrition and resource education, we find that EFNEP participants who complete six or more lessons experience significantly less food insecurity that those who drop out early in the program," Dollahite says.

Dollahite and Cornell colleagues Christine Olson, professor of nutritional sciences, and Michelle Scott-Pierce, an extension support specialist, evaluated the food budgets of 16,146 participants in a multiethnic, low-income population over three years. The participants were evaluated before and after they participated. The study is published in the December 2003 issue of Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal. EFNEP program participants learn skills such as budgeting, comparing prices, using coupons, shopping with a grocery list, planning meals ahead of time and taking advantage of food assistance and other social-service programs. "And the more lessons individuals attend, the more their ratings on food security improve," Dollahite notes.

Other findings:

  • Farm residents did not benefit significantly from nutrition education, perhaps because they had access to food produced on the farm; thus, economic resources were perhaps the only limiting factor, with little room for improvement with education.

  • Residents of small towns improved their skills more than city residents, perhaps because of the higher cost of living in urban areas.

  • Older participants appeared to gain fewer skills than did younger participants, perhaps because they already have gained these skills over time.

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