The Pick a better snack™ program was developed by the Iowa Nutrition Network in the Iowa Department of Public Health. With a proven track record, it is becoming a model for other states. Since all states receive funds from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to provide nutrition education for low-income children, it makes sense to replicate the most effective programs.
When the USDA did a large scale evaluation of the Iowa Pick a better snack™ (PABS) program in 2013, the results were clear: The program works. “What was less clear,” says Ms. Doris Montgomery, state coordinator for the Iowa Nutrition Network, “was why it worked.”
Montgomery enlisted the help of Dr. Natoshia Askelson, assistant professor in the University of Iowa College of Public Health’s department of community and behavioral health. Along with a team of graduate students and recent alumni, Dr. Askelson is working to unpack which aspects of the PABS program are effective.
The program has a lot of moving parts. Understanding which ones are vital to producing positive results will help Montgomery and her peers across the nation to know where to put their funds.
Nutrition educators who visit schools once a month are the hallmark of the program. In addition to in-class time, kids take home bingo cards that encourage them to try different foods and physical activity throughout the month. Parents receive a newsletter with cooking and shopping tips. The program also has signage in local grocery stores and advertising on billboards.
It is that class time that the kids remember. Ms, Montgomery calls the nutrition educators “rock stars” and says that kids will try things for them that they will not for their parents or regular teachers.
Kids are encouraged to touch the food, smell it, and then – hopefully – taste it. The idea is that the more curiosity kids can bring to the experience, the more likely they are to take the final step and eat something new.
“We use positive peer pressure,” says Ms. Judith Dittmar, who leads the program in seven Council Bluffs elementary schools, noting that sometimes kids will be cheering for each other to try a food that’s either unfamiliar to them or believed to be “bad.”
Iowa has an increasing poverty rate and low national ranking in consumption of fruits and vegetables, meaning kids often lack access to fresh food at home. Which is where Askelson’s research comes into play. The success of PABS lies, she says, in “pester power” – that age-old talent kids have for getting what they want. In this case, it’s being used to ask for healthier food options.
“We want to be sure they are learning how to be better askers,” Askelson says. After the kids learn about a new food, it’s important that they have the skills to help make that food appear on the family dinner table.
Last summer, two College of Public Health graduate students called parents of children who had participated in the program. One of the interviewers, Julia Friberg, a second year Master of Public Health student from Rockford, IL, explains, “The questions focused on how children ask for food, grocery shopping habits, and strategizing for food budgets.”