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Improving eating habits with healthy recipes and effective marketing

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Trying to encourage people to eat a balanced diet is not an easy feat, especially considering that healthy options may not be accessible to people with lower incomes. The Oregon State University Extension Service stepped up to the challenge with the launch in 2009 of the Food Hero social marketing campaign, and it seems to be working.

The campaign's organizers set out to encourage healthy eating among low-income Oregonians by:

  • Launching the Food Hero website at www.foodhero.org, with information in English and Spanish.
  • Organizing Food Hero taste-tasting events in schools and communities across Oregon.
  • Offering a library of healthy recipes that have all been taste-tested, many of which have been approved by children.

Two new research studies conducted by OSU have found the campaign to be effective in helping low-income families eat more nutritious meals by offering them recipes that can be prepared quickly and affordably.

"The success of the program is by far exceeding the scope of what we envisioned when we started," said Melinda Manore, a professor of nutrition in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at OSU and co-author of the studies. "Getting people to change their diet and eating behavior, especially when they do not have much money, is very difficult, and this program is helping to do that."

The social marketing program is led by Lauren Tobey of Extension Family and Community Health at OSU, who is also lead author of both studies. Food Hero is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education, or SNAP-Ed. SNAP-Ed focuses on obesity prevention within low-income households.

One of the new studies, published in the journal Nutrients, explores how Food Hero was developed and tested. The goal of the program is to increase fruit and vegetable consumption among those eligible for SNAP benefits in Oregon, with a particular focus on low-income mothers.

The campaign's strategy includes providing clearly focused messages, writing in plain language, being positive and realistic with the messaging and offering simple tools for action that include an explanation of what to do and how to do it. The campaign has been effective, in part, because educators stayed focused on their target audience, the researchers said.

The other study, published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, examines Food Hero's recipe project in more depth. The recipes used in the Food Hero campaign are formulated to be healthy, tasty and kid-friendly. To date, the Food Hero recipes have been accessed millions of times via the website and social media sites such as Pinterest.

"All of the recipes are simple to make and cost-effective for families on tight budgets," Tobey said. "Many families can't afford to have a recipe fail or try an untested recipe the family may not end up liking."

The recipes also are being tested with children who complete surveys or participate in a vote. If at least 70% of participating children say they like how a recipe tastes, then it is considered "kid-approved." The program has collected more than 20,000 assessments from kids who have tried Food Hero recipes at school or at community events. About 36% of the tested recipes have received the "kid-approved" rating to date.

"When our nutrition educators say to the children, 'Would you like to try this for us and tell us what you think?' it empowers them," Manore said. "It also is a way to expose kids to foods they may not have tried before."

Parents and caregivers are also surveyed after their children participate in tasting exercises. The research showed that of those who completed surveys:

  • 79% said their child talked about what they had learned in school about healthy eating,
  • 69% reported that their child asked for specific recipes, and
  • 72% reported making at least one Food Hero recipe.

As Food Hero's tips, tools and recipes get shared in person, online, through the media and via social media, the program's reach also expands beyond the initial audience, the researchers said. Recipes from the program are now being used around the world, and in 2015, the recipes on the Food Hero website received more than 290,000 page views.

Anyone interested can also subscribe to Food Hero Monthly, an electronic magazine that includes recipes and tips. Click here to sign up.

In addition to their collaborations with Oregon partners such as the Department of Human Services, Department of Education and Oregon Health Authority, Food Hero program leaders are sharing materials and ideas with public health and SNAP-Ed programs in other states.

"Since 95% of the Food Hero recipes contain fruits, vegetables or both, people who try the recipes are helping us meet the primary goal of the campaign, which is to encourage more fruit and vegetable consumption, especially among low-income families," Tobey said.

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