Brighter Bites, a school-based program that combines the distribution of donated produce with nutritional education and a fun food experience for low-income families in food desert areas, was successful in improving the intake of fruits and vegetables in first-grade children and their parents, according to a new study by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). Food desert areas are defined as neighborhoods with limited access to fresh produce.
[Photo: Dr. Shreela V. Sharma]
Results showed that Brighter Bites also significantly reduced the intake of added sugars among the children and improved the home environments of the families, including increased frequency of cooking at home, serving more fruits and vegetables and eating more meals as a family. Parents also showed improvements in understanding nutrition fact labels and using them to make grocery purchasing decisions.
“This study is important because it shows the feasibility, acceptability and impact of implementing a unique, school-based food co-op model to improve dietary behaviors and the home nutrition environment among low-income, underserved children and their parents,” said Dr. Shreela V. Sharma, associate professor of epidemiology, human genetics & environmental sciences at UTHealth School of Public Health and co-founder of Brighter Bites. “While food co-ops are becoming popular, there is little published literature to show their benefit and impact.”
The visionary behind Brighter Bites, a non-profit organization, is Ms. Lisa Helfman, who in 2012 created the formula of combining the distribution of fresh produce plus nutrition education and a fun food experience of food sampling and health promotion, after participating in a local fruits and vegetables co-op. Sharma operationalized the formula, created the nutrition education materials and developed the research infrastructure around the program.
“I hatched the idea of Brighter Bites because my two boys changed their eating habits as a result of consistent exposure to more fruits and vegetables over the course of several months, and I thought if I could have these results in my house, could we replicate them in underserved neighborhoods too. Now it’s been scientifically proven that it works for many other children too. With this conclusive research, I know we can have a significant impact on countless more families. I am thrilled for my cofounder Dr. Sharma and for the dynamic research team behind this project,” said Helfman.
For the study, Brighter Bites’ 16-week study program combined access to fruits and vegetables with nutrition education and a fun food experience. It included weekly distribution of fresh, primarily reclaimed produce sourced and delivered from the Houston Food Bank that was sent home with the family for eight weeks each in the fall and spring. The program featured weekly healthy recipe tastings featuring produce from that week and health education in the schools and for parents.