AUSTIN, TX – What kids eat affects their health for life. But influencing their habits can be challenging, especially for disadvantaged families with fewer resources. However, providing caregivers easy access to flexible production and resources can lead to improvements in children’s diet in no time, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Texas Dell Medical School at Austin.
randomized clinical trial, Posted today in JAMA network is openLed by Dell Med’s health worker Initiative and funded by a grant from The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. The team set out to assess the effect of providing caregivers with four weeks of free tastings and grocery gift cards on their ability to adjust their children’s diets.
“We know that people in general, including children, are not consuming the recommended daily amount of fruits and vegetables,” said Maninder “Mini” Kahlon, Ph.D., director and founder of Factor Health. “We wanted to see if we could support caregivers in improving their children’s diet with easy access to fresh produce as well as flexible resources that they can use however they want, based on their priorities.”
The two-group randomized clinical trial was conducted from May to July 2021. Researchers began offering food and groceries gift cards to caregivers enrolled in a sidewalk program run by them. Boys and Girls Clubs in the Austin area (BGCAA). Every week for four weeks, the caregivers were given 10-pound boxes of fruits and vegetables at BGCAA locations and $10 gift cards for the HEB grocery store.
“These families were already part of our ‘Club on the Go’ program, which was launched in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Jane Barnes, director of club operations at the BGCAA. “Incorporating the lunch box and handing out gift cards into their regular visit to the site eliminated the burden and inconvenience of making an extra trip to pick it up.”
At four- and eight-week intervals, researchers evaluated the diets of children and caregivers using physical activity and nutrition at a Texas school (Texas Span) developed by Michael and Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living. They observed that, on average, the children ate healthy foods two more times a day, compared to the control group, and the healthy eating behaviors continued after the program ended.
Kahlon, who is also an associate professor of population health at Dell Med. “This is particularly noteworthy given that caregivers are not required to use their gift cards to purchase healthy food.”
Caregivers were given an additional $10 gift card during the last three weeks of the program if they completed short reinforcement surveys that reminded them of the program’s healthy eating goal. They were also given a one-time choice of a $25 food prep kit, including a kids’ kitchen set, food mixer, knives, and seasoning sets.
said Deanna Hoelscher, PhD, associate investigator on the Factor Health team, dean of the UTHealth School of Public Health Austin Campus, and director of the Michael and Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living. “We’ve also provided support with each produce box, including bilingual, culturally relevant recipes customized to the box’s contents and helpful tips, such as how to store produce.”
Improving health outside clinics and hospitals
“In the context of the social determinants of health, there seem to be endless opportunities for our health system to innovate and engage with what our team at Dell Med calls the health landscape, or health in people’s lives landscape,” Kahlon said. This is where programs like Factor Health come in — by bringing together community organizations, healthcare payers and investors with new ways to rethink the path to better health, particularly for vulnerable populations, she said.
The Christensen Institute has profiled Factor Health as an innovative business model in White papers On Social Drivers of Health, released earlier this week.
Factor Health, which is funded by a Houston-based foundation Episcopal Health Institution, is preparing to launch a larger study with the BGCAA involving elementary-aged children in Central Texas that includes lessons learned from this clinical trial. Factor Health works with healthcare payers such as Medicaid managed care organizations to advance the state of health and business to maintain effective social programs by paying for important outcomes.
“We found that we don’t have to restrict caregivers to healthy purchases for them to make healthy choices for their children, with results very fast,” Kahlon said. “As we move forward, we are pleased to see to what extent we can improve children’s diet through long-term programs that provide resources for caregivers to experiment and craft their own strategies that work in the context of their lives.”
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