Improving Nutrition in Poweshiek County One Food Box at a Time

Today, we are sharing an example of community collaboration, emphasizing a practical application of data to produce real-world solutions to policy issues. Mid-Iowa Community Action (MICA), located in Grinnell, IA, partnered with DASIL to evaluate the quality of its food pantry services and determine ways to promote healthier eating among the families it serves.  This partnership allows for the investigation of data, providing the necessary concrete evidence to drive future changes in MICA’s food box policy. Seth hopes that this will inaugurate a shift to more data-driven decision-making at MICA.

Obesity and Type II Diabetes differentially affect the lower-income Americans who are the clients of MICA. This has been largely attributed to financial constraints leaving families with no choice but purchasing the most inexpensive food they can, which is frequently less nutritional. Thus the food pantry is potentially an important potential part of the solution. To learn more about the influence of income on diabetes rates, take a look at this study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention or explore DASIL’s interactive visualization on factors correlating with diabetes.

Food boxes are distributed monthly to the families MICA serves, providing varying amounts of food based on family size. After a few weeks at MICA, Grinnell Corps Fellow Seth Howard approached his director about conducting a survey to evaluate the need for changes in the food boxes. The goal of the survey was twofold: to assess satisfaction with MICA services, as it had been years since the food services had been adequately evaluated, and to ascertain the demand for healthier foods, different foods, nutritional information, and cooking tips.

Seth surveyed every individual who utilized the food pantry in the month of July using a questionnaire that could be returned anonymously to a submission box.  A total of 195 household took the survey, giving a response rate of 78.9% of the 247 households served in that month. Using a 5-point Likert scale (1-Strongly Negative, 2- Somewhat Negative, 3-Neutral, 4- Somewhat Positive, 5- Strongly Positive), survey takers responded to the frequency with which they use common food box items, as well as answering some questions about what they’d like to see in future food boxes.

As the graphic below shows, overall, MICA households using the food pantry wanted to see healthier items despite being generally satisfied with the food boxes (only 6.15% reported strong or slight dissatisfaction). Providing even better, healthier options will increase satisfaction and drastically boost use of food box contents.

Would you like to receive healthier food items in the monthly box?  72% Yes, 28% No

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Iowa Ranks Low in the School Breakfast Program

The School Breakfast Program, like the more familiar National School Lunch Program, provides subsidized meals to school children. Researchers have found that eating a nutritional breakfast at school improves students’ academic performance, reduces disciplinary problems, and increases the likelihood that students eat a healthful meal.

Unfortunately, when it comes to reaching children from low-income households with this program Iowa has long ranked near the bottom of states. On an average day in October 2013, Iowa served approximately 40 free and reduced-price breakfasts for every 100 free and reduced-price lunches.  Based on a similar score, the Food Research and Action Center, a national nonprofit organization that studies hunger in the United States and advocates for nutrition and anti-hunger policies, ranks Iowa’s School Breakfast Program coverage as 47th out of 50 states and DC.

Assuming October to be representative of the school year, our state’s poor performance means that thousands of low-income children in Iowa are failing to access this important program. What might explain this? And should we be concerned?

Of course, some families and children may not choose to participate in the program. But long bus-rides, increases in the number of school children in poverty, and the demonstrated benefits of the program means we should think through making the program as accessible as possible.

The figure below includes two histograms showing the increasing number of school sites (that is, elementary, middle school, and secondary schools) with larger percentages of children eligible for free and reduced-price meals.  According to Census data, the percentage of Iowa school children from households at or below the poverty line rose by approximately 2.5 points during this period. Of course, as the state grows the absolute number of children in poverty grows as well (unless the rate were to fall). In the end, the rate increase and the growth in population means approximately 20,000 more students from families in poverty attend Iowa schools compared to just a decade ago.

Percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals by number of Iowa school sites

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