Despite many public health efforts, fruit and vegetable intake among US children is still below recommendations, particularly among racial/ethnic minorities and children of low-income families. Schools are positioned to impact student diet via national school meal programs, though there are also many school-based efforts to increase diet quality and decrease hunger. For example, school food pantries that supply free food to students and their families are increasingly common. In Houston, Texas researchers applied a new model to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables among low-income families: a school food cooperative called Brighter Bites.
A food cooperative, dubbed “co-op,” is a food distribution initiative that is democratically owned and controlled by its members. Members usually pay a fee to join, often receive a price break on goods purchased through the co-op, and frequently volunteer to work for the co-op. Generally, food co-ops attempt to bridge the gap between local food and local consumers.
As a unique pioneering program, Brighter Bites was the first of its kind to connect the school and food bank to increase access to fruits and vegetables. Researchers at the University of Texas Health School of Public Health conducted a two-year study to examine the effectiveness of Brighter Bites on 760 students and their families at nine schools from 2013-2015.
Parents picked up 2 bags—one full of fruits and the other full of vegetables—of fresh produce from the schools each week, totaling thirty pounds (averaging fifty to sixty servings). Participating families paid only $4.31 per week for this fresh produce, and much like a traditional food co-op, parents contributed by bagging and distributing weekly produce.
While the food co-op model may work in many school communities, it is important to note that Brighter Bites also included school health education and parent-child nutrition education during pick-up. For example, parents were given bilingual nutrition handouts and recipe cards and watched recipe demonstrations incorporating the produce they just received.
Results of the Brighter Bites study were very promising:
- A significant increase in children’s self-choice in eating fruit instead of candy during snack times
- A significant increase in children’s attitudes toward the taste of healthy foods
- An increase in the percent of children who helped prepare dinner
- And a decrease in the frequency of serving sugary drinks at dinner
This co-op proved to be a feasible way to provide access to fresh fruits and veggies, as well as nutrition education, to lower income families. Perhaps a valuable lesson can be learned from Brighter Bites!
In Brattleboro, Vermont, the Brattleboro food co-op took a page out of Brighter Bites’ book by implementing a similar education only program called Good to Grow. As part of their focus on “Our Healthy Bodies,” co-op outreach educators visit classrooms for 30-45 minutes to teach students about “eating a rainbow” of fruits and vegetables, calcium for “growing bones,” and the digestive process. These classroom visits are free and often provide a healthy snack to supplement the information being learned.
While connections between food co-ops and schools are currently uncommon, they may be beneficial for children, families, and food choices. Further investigation into the untapped resources of food co-op models is warranted!
Catherine Spivak, Cornell University, Division of Nutritional Sciences
Shrama, S., Helfman, L., Albus, K., Pomeroy, M., Chuang, R. J., & Markham, C. (2015). Feasibility and acceptability of Brighter Bites: a food co-op in schools to increase access, continuity and education of fruits and vegetables among low-income populations. Journal of Primary Prevention, 36 (4).