Abt Associates: Bold thinkers driving real-world impact
Abt Associates’ evaluations are documenting the impact of U.S. food security programs so that food assistance can better meet the needs of the millions of Americans who rely on it.
Tens of millions of low-income Americans lack sufficient resources to purchase enough food and therefore struggle with food insecurity and with maintaining healthy diets. They rely on a wide range of federally funded food programs to avoid hunger, including monthly assistance to purchase food and free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches in schools.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and partner states that administer these food assistance programs have responded to the needs of these Americans by creating pilot projects and reforms to reduce household food insecurity and encourage people enrolled in the programs to buy and eat more fruits and vegetables.
An Abt analysis found strong evidence that fruit and vegetable consumption was higher among students in schools participating in USDA’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) than students in comparable non-FFVP schools. FFVP reimburses selected elementary schools for providing students with snacks of fresh fruits and vegetables outside of school breakfast and lunch meals.
Students in FFVP schools – which have high rates of free and reduced-price meal enrollment – consumed one-third of a cup more fruits and vegetables on schools days that the program was offered than students in non-FFVP schools. Abt’s study examined nearly 700 schools in 16 states.
“The increase in school children eating fruits and vegetables is important because children from socioeconomically disadvantaged families tend to eat fewer fruits and vegetables,” said Bartlett, the report’s lead author.
The study also found that students in FFVP schools also had more positive attitudes about fruits and vegetables. The vast majority of schools in FFVP – 88 percent – provided nutrition education sometime during the prior month. Only 59 percent of non-FFVP schools did so.
The Summer Food Service Program traditionally has distributed meals to children during school breaks through local sponsoring organizations, including school districts, local government agencies, camps, or private nonprofit organizations. However, less than 15% of the tens of millions of children who receive free and reduced-price meals during the school year also receive similar breakfasts and lunches during the summer, when school is not in session.
To try to reach more eligible children, the USDA mounted a large demonstration program – the Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer for Children (SEBTC). In summer of 2012, SEBTC provided approximately $60 a month per eligible child via electronic banking cards used for other USDA nutrition programs to approximately 67,000 children in 14 communities around the U.S. Abt and its subcontractors – Mathematica Policy Research and MAXIMUS – studied its effects using a rigorous evaluation design.
“Our study showed that, in the communities where it was offered, SEBTC substantially reduced levels of very low food securityamong children – which occurs when children’s food intake declines or their eating pattern is disrupted,” said Ann Collins, Abt principal associate and director of the evaluation. “SEBTC also decreased levels low food securityamong children, which means the quality or variety of their diet was improved.”
SEBTC reduced the rate of very low food security – which is characterized in part by eating insufficient meals, skipping meals, and the consequent weight loss – among children to 6.4 percent. This is a drop from 9.5 percent, the rate for those who did not receive the benefit. In other words, the pilot program prevented very low food security for one child out of three who otherwise would have experienced it.
Participants in the largest USDA food assistance program – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – responded to a pilot program, the Healthy Incentives Pilot (HIP), which offered a 30 cent incentive for each dollar spent on fruits and vegetables. Qualifying food included fresh, canned, frozen, and dried fruits and vegetables without added sugars, fats, or oils.
Abt, in partnership with Westat and MAXIMUS, examined the impact of the HIP program, conducted in Hampden County in Western Massachusetts. The pilot is being evaluated using a random assignment design with 7,500 HIP households selected from 55,000 SNAP enrollees in the county. Households in both groups were randomly sampled to participate in the evaluation.
“Interim evaluation results from the first half of the pilot showed that HIP participants who received the incentive consumed one-fifth of a cup more fruits and vegetables per day than HIP non-participants,” said Bartlett, who led the study. “While one-fifth of a cup does not sound like a dramatic increase in fruit and vegetable consumption, population dietary changes are generally small and incremental.”
The positive HIP impacts were broadly consistent among HIP participants, regardless of employment status, age, presence of children in the household, and amount of the household’s SNAP benefit. The evaluation’s final report will explore the findings in more depth and include data from the entire pilot.
“Abt’s mission is to improve the lives and economic well-being of people worldwide,” Bartlett said. “This research, which is helping USDA to refine its nutrition programs, falls right in line with what Abt is trying to accomplish as a company.”
Abt Associates is a mission-driven, global leader in research, evaluation and program implementation in the fields of health, social and environmental policy, and international development. Known for its rigorous approach to solving complex challenges, Abt Associates is regularly ranked as one of the top 20 global research firms and one of the top 40 international development innovators. The company has multiple offices in the U.S. and program offices in more than 40 countries.