MANHATTAN, Kan. — Educators and instructors working to help low-income families make better dietary and lifestyle choices are leveraging a data-management tool developed at Kansas State University.
On March 19, the nonprofit Bipartisan Policy Center, which is chaired by a former U.S. Senate majority leader and two former Secretaries of Agriculture, issued an assessment of one of the nation’s largest public-assistance systems, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
In the report, “Leading with Nutrition: Leveraging Federal Programs for Better Health,” K-State’s Program Evaluation And Reporting System, or PEARS, is commended for helping educators and nutrition counselors make efficient use of program data. “SNAP-Ed administrators can spend less time agonizing over data,” the report states, “and more time identifying and implementing successful interventions.”
SNAP is the federal government’s key effort for helping feed poverty-stricken families. A five-year study showed 13 percent of U.S. population accesses this assistance, including 15.8 percent of the country’s rural population. SNAP-Ed is the related, integrated set of efforts aimed at educating SNAP recipients. Through demonstrations, workshops, and even online and social media programs, SNAP recipients gain knowledge on topics ranging from making healthier grocery-store choices to recipes and cooking classes that help household leaders serve tasty, nutritious and inexpensive meals to their families.
In Kansas, SNAP-Ed is administered through K-State Research and Extension.
The PEARS project came from the Kansas SNAP-Ed program working on evaluation support with K-State Research and Extension and the Office of Education Innovation and Evaluation in K-State’s College of Education. “This led to an opportunity for our team to build an innovative tool to help streamline the process,” said Aaron Schroeder, the office’s assistant director.
PEARS eventually emerged from this cooperative effort as a means to evaluate program data for SNAP-Ed providers out in the field and help them target their efforts in a more efficient, effective way.
While developed at K-State, PEARS is branching out in a big way.
Currently 20 states are officially using the system, Schroeder said, and more states are in the process of evaluating PEARS, or working with the Kansas State University Research Foundation (KSURF) on a license agreement. Several more states are expected to begin using the system soon.
“Before PEARS, every state had its own data-management systems and processes,” Schroeder said. “PEARS is both streamlining and bringing consistency to these efforts. From a taxpayer perspective, any time states collaborate and build and support a single system, that’s far more efficient than everyone working independently and using different data sets.”
SNAP recipients themselves will never have direct contact with PEARS, but they could potentially reap rewards from the system. To borrow a phrase from an old television commercial: PEARS doesn’t make SNAP-Ed programming, but it can make SNAP-Ed programming better.
“I think one of the biggest things that they’re looking at now is partnerships,” said Cynthia Shuman, the director of the Office of Educational Innovation and Evaluation. “The system is helping local educators track who they’re working with, what they’re doing with those groups and how they can improve those partnerships to ultimately improve outcomes.”
SNAP-Ed educators frequently create partnerships between school districts, local food banks and even local farmers’ markets. “It’s not just the number of groups you’re working with, but how you’re working with them and what sort of resources those groups are bringing to the table,” added Shuman.
In Marion County, K-State Research and Extension family and consumer science agent Tristen Cope used PEARS to fine tune a partnership between the local community gardens and the Marion County Food Bank. SNAP-Ed educators provided seeds and plants to the community garden to assist with the production rate. As produce ripened, it was donated to the Marion County Food Bank – but success sometimes has its challenges.
“One of the barriers we saw at the food bank was the lack of storage space for the fresh produce,” Cope said. “After connecting with our partners, we revised our planting schedule and placed the produce on a rotation in order to overcome the barrier. This adaptation was made possible through the reflection process labeled ‘Lessons Learned’ in the PEARS System.”
Because better nutrition choices in the population as a whole can result in fewer health problems and lower health insurance rates, eventually PEARS could have a positive effect on everyone.
“When K-State Research and Extension approached the Office of Educational Innovation and Evaluation to help us collect data for our SNAP-Ed program, we had no idea that we would end up with such a powerful system,” said Paula Peters, Director of the Kansas SNAP-Ed Program. “This system has allowed us to progress with our programming and evaluation in ways that we couldn’t have done without it. And OEIE is so responsive to our always-growing needs. When other states saw what it could do, they wanted it, too.”