A $500,000 federal grant is fueling a three-year research study at Fresno State that seeks to determine whether encouraging students to consume more fresh fruit and vegetables will decrease their food insecurity and diet-related chronic disease.
The grant was one of 43 awarded nationwide by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through its Produce Prescription Program. The USDA on Tuesday announced an investment of $59.4 million to support the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program’s (GusNIP) Produce Prescription and Nutrition Incentive programs that are designed to encourage families and individuals to eat more healthfully by increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
The local study is being led by Dr. Shabnam Pooya, a Fresno State assistant professor of family food science. Pooya did not immediately respond to an email Tuesday seeking further comment.
Wednesday morning, Pooya told GV Wire that she expects about 400 students will be recruited to participate over two years, and the third year will be used for analysis of data. The students will be referred through the Amendola Family Student Cupboard, which is part of the university’s Food Security Project to help students who struggle with food insecurity.
Food Insecurity Among Students
According to the study’s synopsis, approximately one of every two Fresno State students suffers from food insecurity. People with higher rates of food insecurity typically eat fewer fresh fruits and vegetables, the synopsis reported.
Pooya said a prior study during COVID-19 by her team showed that students struggling with food insecurity were less likely to eat fruits and vegetables and more likely to consume energy drinks and sugar-sweetened beverages.
The Fresno State Food Security Project was launched in November 2014 with a goal to support Fresno State students experiencing food insecurity or other health and nutrition challenges. In addition to the Student Cupboard, the project provides students with outreach and application assistance for CalFresh, which provides financial assistance for food purchases for low-income Californians.
“Unfortunately, the rate of food insecurity increased dramatically since this program started, from 31% in 2014 to 44.7% in 2021. Therefore, we decided to develop a multidisciplinary team to investigate different aspects of food insecurity,” Pooya said. ” … Knowledge deficit is one of the main issues among food insecure communities as evidenced by their food choices.”
The USDA-funded study will focus on providing a comprehensive nutrition intervention program that includes:
- Guided grocery store tours focusing on fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Ongoing nutrition education sessions supporting the information provided during the guided grocery store tours.
- “Nutrition prescriptions,” a suggested strategy to increase consumption of healthy foods including fruits and vegetables and decrease consumption of unhealthy foods, especially saturated fats, trans fats, sodium, and added sugar, and “incentive boxes” also will support what students learn in the grocery store tours and nutritional educational programs.
- Genetic tests for non-alcoholic fatty liver, obesity, and type 2 diabetes to investigate genetic variations that may be associated with diseases.
The study will provide an opportunity for the student participants to identify existing diet-related health problems, improve their self-awareness and knowledge of nutrition, and ultimately lead to a decrease in medical care costs while improving their health prospects.
Four undergraduate and two graduate students will assist with marketing, leading the grocery store tours, creating recipes and cookbooks, and data collection, Pooya said.
The student participants will be divided into two groups, the experimental group whose participants will receive all the instructional services and weekly baskets of fresh fruits and vegetables from Save Mart, and a control group, she said.
The study’s objectives include participants eating one more serving daily of fruits and vegetables measured by their HealthWatch 360 score by the program’s end. HealthWatch 360 is a mobile app through which students will report their diet, lifestyle, and health data, which will be accessible to researchers for the study. The platform is HIPPA-compliant, which means that students’ health information will remain confidential.
By the end of the study, the participants should be able to select fruits and vegetables that are good sources of vitamins and fiber, and also be able to demonstrate how they cook with those healthy foods.