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G.A.O. Recommends Improved Efforts in Nutrition Education

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Washington--At a time when the federal government is eliminating much of its support for nutrition education, a new report from the General Accounting Office (gao) has recommended that the government collect and share information on successful school-based nutrition-education programs.

Nutrition education in the schools is valuable from the point of view of both health and money, according to the report. An estimated 10-to-40 percent of all schoolchildren are overweight and a high percentage of them remain overweight when they reach adulthood, it notes.

While other factors may also be responsible, the report states, poor eating habits are cited by many experts as a primary cause of obesity. And the experts agree that the most effective way to develop a "nutritionally informed population" is to teach schoolchildren about food and nutrition; they are an "impressionable and captive" audience.

In addition, the gao researchers point out, the federal government spends millions of dollars each year to monitor the food-advertising industry. Nutrition education could eliminate some of these costs, they say, by teaching children to judge the products for themselves.

Panel to Develop Guidelines

The report, What Can Be Done To Improve Nutrition Education Efforts in the Schools, also suggests that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) convene a panel of experts to develop guidelines that would help school officials evaluate their nutrition-education programs. These guidelines should be shared with interested state and local educators, according to the gao report.

Based on a review of existing nutrition-education programs, the investigative agency's report also examines the state of nutrition educa-tion at the federal, state, and local levels.

The usda, the agency responsible for most federal nutrition-education programs in the schools, has taken issue with the report's recommendation that the federal government take on more responsibility for nutrition education.

"Our major concern is the pervading theme of the report which supports federal intrusion into the State and local nutrition-education-curriculum process," wrote Mary C. Jarratt, assistant secretary for food and consumer services for the department, in a March 24 letter of response issued as part of the report.

Although the Agriculture Department is well aware of the importance of teaching children sound nutritional habits, Ms. Jarratt wrote, "... in cooperation with the Administration's efforts to control the federal budget, we feel that the major responsibility for the continuation of nutrition education in the schools must be returned to the state and local entities."

The gao report documents the benefits of nutrition education in the schools--such as reducing "plate waste"--but notes that, according to the survey, "nutrition education remains basically unstructured, sporadic, and a low priority." Moreover, the gao researchers found, most agencies--federal, state, and private--made only limited efforts to identify and share information on successful nutrition-education programs in the schools.

Teachers Unprepared

Teacher training is also a problem, according to the report. Since only a few states require elementary-school teachers to take nutrition courses as part of their certification requirements, the majority of teachers are not prepared to teach nutrition. They must rely on in-service training, which, according to the report, several states said they encountered problems in providing.

That greater emphasis on nutrition education would lead to both monetary and health benefits for schools and children is indicated, the gao report argues, by documented benefits of those programs. For example, a USDA study found that in California, a nutrition-education project was followed by an 18-percent reduction in lunchroom food waste and a 42-percent increase in knowledge of nutrition.

And in Nebraska, the study notes, a similar project was followed by a 20-percent decline in food waste for many foods served. A comparative West Virginia study reported similar findings: Schools that participated in a nutrition project showed a decrease in food waste, compared to those schools that did not participate.

But although both the USDA and the Education Department have funded numerous nutrition-education projects, neither agency has made much effort to provide information on the federal programs to state and local officials, the investigators point out. "Consequently, many of these [local] agencies found it difficult to locate successful nutrition-education projects and materials to help them implement their nutrition-education programs," the report says.

State officials in three of the four states that agency researchers studied in depth also reported that they found it difficult to assess the results of their nutrition-education programs. According to the report, the officials found it hard to identify what their specific needs in nutrition education were and to develop a system for evaluating programs.

Lack of Coordination

This lack of coordination on many levels, the report found, has prevented nutrition educators from sharing information on successful programs and from developing a unified strategy. Hence, there may be overlap between programs.

The agency addresses all of these issues in its recommendations, most of which stress a strong federal role in gathering, coordinating, and sharing information. Specifically, the federal accounting agency recommends that the usda:

Convene a panel of experts to develop guidelines for assessing the quality of nutrition-education information in the schools;

Share these guidelines with interested state and local education officials;

Gather and assess nutrition-education information on projects meeting the guidelines; and,

Provide state and local education agencies and other interested parties with the evaluation results and with nutrition-education information that meets the guidelines.

In addition, gao recommends that the Secretary of Agriculture discuss with state education agencies "what approaches might be taken to help ensure that teachers have the basic skills needed to teach nutrition." For example, state education officials should consider requiring that new teachers in some fields take nutrition-education courses, and that teachers now in the classroom improve their knowledge of nutrition, the report states.

The report has been referred to education and agriculture committees in both the House and Senate and has been sent to the Office of Management and Budget, the Department of Health and Human Services, usda, and the Education Department.

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