Newswise — RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — The nutrition of low-income Americans can be improved across the life span through participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed), according to a new research brief published by RTI Press.

RTI International researchers evaluated eight nutrition programs offered in child care centers, elementary schools and senior care settings to examine the effectiveness of these programs across different age groups. The study was funded by the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Our findings indicate that SNAP-Ed has the potential to improve nutrition behaviors of low-income individuals across all age groups from preschoolers to older adults," said James Hersey, Ph.D., senior research psychologist at RTI and author of the research brief.

SNAP-Ed programs encourage participants to make healthy food choices on a limited budget, which includes increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables and choosing lower fat dairy products. SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp program, provides nutrition assistance benefits to nearly 47.6 million people in low-income households.

The study, authored by researchers at RTI, found the Eat Well Play Hard in Child Care Settings program, administered by the New York State Department of Health, increased children's at-home consumption of vegetables and low-fat/fat-free milk. Children from low-income households who participated in the nutrition-education program were about 39 percent more likely to drink or use low-fat/fat-free milk on their cereal than children who were not participants of the program.

Researchers found elementary school children also increased their at-home consumption of fruit and vegetables combined by at least one-quarter cup after participating in the Iowa Nutrition Network's Building and Strengthening Iowa Community Supports program (BASICS) and BASICS Plus, the longest-established nutrition programs offered in elementary school settings.

Among older adults, seniors who participated in the Eat Smart, Live Smart program, conducted in nonresidential senior centers in Michigan by the Michigan State University Extension, consumed one-half more cups of fruit and vegetables per day than those who were not exposed to the program.

"The results of this evaluation reinforce the importance of nutrition education in making healthy food choices within a tight budget," Hersey said.

Programs that had been established for several years showed stronger results in child care and elementary school settings, suggesting that experience implementing such programs may make nutrition education more effective. The programs studied provided age appropriate nutrition education lessons in classroom settings, and engaged parents and caregivers through take-home materials.