McDowell leads programs to help thousands make healthier eating choices
Translation of scientific breakthroughs into practical applications has become a “hot topic” and national priority. Joyce McDowell, an inaugural member of the Food Innovation Center, is no newcomer to converting science into public good. McDowell is devoted to applying nutrition findings into research-based curricula for community nutrition programs that benefit low-income individuals and families in Ohio. Starting her career as a family and consumer science extension agent for Adams County in 1971, McDowell has long been committed to community nutrition.
Through a joint appointment with The Ohio State University Department of Human Nutrition and OSU Extension, McDowell is the Principal Investigator for the Ohio Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) and for the Ohio Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education (SNAP-Ed).
“These programs are available in just about every state in the country and in 70 Ohio counties” said McDowell. “SNAP-Ed and EFNEP reach about 17,000 youth and 40,000 adults in Ohio.”
EFNEP is a federally funded program that teaches low-income individuals and families how to prepare tasty and nutritious meals, safely cook and store food, read and understand food labels, and stretch food dollars to last a whole month. Likewise, SNAP-Ed is part of the mission of the Food and Nutrition Service under the United States Department of Agriculture and aims to increase the likelihood that families receiving food assistance benefits will make healthy food choices and choose active lifestyles.
Despite broad impact of the programs, McDowell acknowledged that operational funding has become increasingly competitive. As a result, there has been a concerted effort to measure the concrete effects of the curricula on program participants through pre and post-intervention tests. Test results are incorporated into a healthy eating index that gives insight into the eating habits of participants.
“We’ve been accountable to showing the programs are making a difference in peoples’ lives,” McDowell stated proudly. “We know that 80% of our participants showed improvement in food resource management, 90% showed improvement in nutrition, and 65% showed improvement in food safety.”
Besides programmatic evaluation, no formal research is supported by the federal funds. One of McDowell’s goals is to partner with researchers so that health outcomes and behavioral change can be assessed.
“Because of these programs, there is an opportunity to help with translational research. The connection with researchers at Ohio State is enhanced because of access to resources such as schools, teachers, program assistants, and partnering organizations that work with low-income populations in parts of the state that might otherwise be inaccessible,” she explained. “We can help facilitate community involvement. We can measure the depth of intervention impact."
As an example of a collaborative project, McDowell described a pilot “Food of the Month” program in Troy City Schools that brings a fresh fruit or vegetable into the school cafeteria for students to try every month. Brian Roe, a Center member and Professor of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics, is pursuing funding to expand the program to another school and to study how tasting the "food of the month" changes eating behavior.
“What we learn in our program raises research questions and highlights issues in the United States such as obesity, food availability, and physical activity.” McDowell posited. “Why do people change their behavior? And if we can only change one, which one has the greatest health benefit? For example, is label reading more important than meal planning?”
McDowell hopes that EFNEP and SNAP-Ed can continue to connect with researchers so that more of these questions can be answered. She quickly pointed out that the Food Innovation Center was designed to facilitate such connections.
“The Food Innovation Center is an intentional resource and appears to be very committed to nutritional issues and ways to partner researchers. I appreciate that,” she said with a sense of humility. “There’s an unselfish attitude that together we can make a greater impact and answer bigger questions than any of us can individually."
Learn more about the Ohio EFNEP and SNAP-Ed programs here.
Story written by Alex Barkley