Get Updates via Email Get Updates Get our RSS Feed
  Follow Mathematica on Twitter  Share/Save/Bookmark

Nutrition Policy Research

photo of father and son having breakfastGood nutrition is critical to good health and quality of life. Mathematica is a recognized leader in evaluating programs and policies that aim to ensure healthy and adequate diets for all Americans. We have studied all of the major U.S. food and nutrition assistance programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly the Food Stamp Program), school meal programs, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). Our research has examined the quality of diets consumed by individuals across the life cycle—from infancy through old age.

Mathematica’s research has been informing the development of nutrition policy for more than three decades. Our work has helped legislators and program administrators understand how changes in the economy and proposed revisions to program policies could affect program participation and costs. Findings from our landmark evaluation of the school meal programs—the first School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study (SNDA-I)—led to major changes in legislation and program requirements and a national initiative to improve the nutritional quality of school meals. Our most recent SNDA study—SNDA-III—provides insights into how foods sold in vending machines and other venues outside of the school meal programs affect children’s dietary intakes and may contribute to obesity. For more than a decade, we have been providing the nation’s food bank network with critical information about the individuals and households that seek food assistance and the charitable network that serves them. Mathematica staff played a key role in development of the Healthy Eating Index (HEI), a tool used widely in published research and by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to monitor overall diet quality of the nation as well as of individuals in federal food and nutrition assistance programs.

Childhood Obesity

Over the past three decades, the prevalence of childhood obesity has more than doubled for preschool children aged 2 to 5 years and adolescents aged 12 to 19 years. It has more than tripled for children aged 6 to 11 years. Mathematica has studied the contribution of competitive foods—items of minimal nutritional quality sold in schools that compete with school meals and contribute to children’s calorie intakes. We have examined the association between the school food environment and children's dietary intakes and obesity. In addition, we evaluated the implementation of the “I Am Moving, I Am Learning” program, an innovative obesity prevention program offered in Head Start programs across the nation. Our staff has also assessed other programs to prevent childhood obesity, researched the feeding patterns of infants and toddlers, and investigated the trend toward larger portion sizes offered in restaurant and packaged foods.

Improving Federal Food and Nutrition Programs

We have conducted large-scale studies of all of the major federally funded nutrition programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly the Food Stamp Program), the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), the Child and Adult Care Food Program, the Summer Food Service Program, and the Administration on Aging’s Title III-C Nutrition Program. Our work has examined program operations costs as well as the characteristics of participating and nonparticipating individuals and households. We have also assessed the relationship between program participation and diet quality. Most recently, we have been examining the relationship between food expenditures and diet quality and determining whether this relationship differs for program participants and nonparticipants.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Mathematica’s researchers are nationally recognized experts on SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program. Our research provides the federal government with the statistical data used to monitor the program, including client profiles and state participation data. Our work also helps policymakers understand the implications of potential changes to program policies. Using microsimulation—a way of modeling real-life events—we estimate how changes would affect different population groups. We also examine how participation in one program affects receipt of other benefits and estimate how shifts in the economy may change caseloads. Other studies have looked at how benefits affect the nutrients available to participant households and identified effective strategies for increasing participation among the elderly.

WIC. The WIC program helps safeguard the health of pregnant women, new mothers, infants, and children. After one of our studies found that the program produces large health care savings as well as higher birthweights for newborns, funding was expanded substantially, and our findings were cited extensively by the President and Congress. Using a statistical process called "shrinkage estimation," we also produce annual estimates of how many people are eligible to participate in WIC in each state, to form the basis for funding allocations. In addition, we have studied promising WIC initiatives that promote breastfeeding and improve nutrition education.

School Meal  Programs. Our 1993 School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study (SNDA-I) revealed that the fat and sodium content of school lunches was well above levels recommended in the 1990 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These findings fueled a national debate on the importance of improving the nutritional quality of school meals, which led to major changes in program requirements. Since SNDA-I, we have continued to study the food and nutrient content of school meals and how these meals contribute to children’s diets. Our most recent work has examined other aspects of school environments that may influence children's diets, including the availability of competitive foods and local school wellness policies. Our work on the school meal programs has also explored reasons that some children do not participate and examined methods to enhance the efficiency and integrity of the programs. A recent study estimated erroneous reimbursements created by certification errors and meal counting and claiming errors. Currently, we are conducting the fourth SNDA study and, in a congressionally mandated study, we are assessing the nutritional quality of foods purchased in a nationally representative sample of school districts.

Emergency Food Assistance System. When food needs cannot be met by federal food assistance programs, many households turn to the emergency food assistance system for help. This system is a loosely connected network of food pantries, emergency kitchens, and shelters that provide food, usually on a walk-in basis. Although most of the organizations in the network are private and nonprofit, many receive federal subsidies. Important issues include whom the system serves and how well it functions as a source of last resort for people who need assistance. Mathematica has conducted three national surveys of the emergency food assistance system since 2001. Our work has included surveys of both providers and clients, including those at faith-based agencies.

Nutrition Surveys and Methods for Assessing Dietary Quality

As knowledge of the relationship between diet and long-term health has increased, so have concerns about hunger and food insecurity; overweight and obesity; and dietary knowledge, attitudes, and behavior. Mathematica has extensive experience collecting the types of data needed to address these important issues. We are a recognized leader in collecting, coding, and analyzing nutrition-related data. Mathematica has collected dietary intake and food use data for national samples of infants, toddlers, and young preschoolers; school-age children; older adults; and SNAP households and we have assessed these data using state-of-the-art methods. We were among the first to implement methods recommended by the Institute of Medicine for assessing usual nutrient intakes. Mathematica staff have also developed dietary behavior questionnaires and other instruments to assess individual eating habits, including tools appropriate for self-administration among low-literacy populations. We have developed instruments to assess food environments in schools, and food and physical activity environments in Head Start centers.

Sharing Our Expertise

In recognition of their expertise, many of our researchers have served on expert panels that help shape nutrition policy and set the nutrition research agenda for the future. For example, Mathematica staff have served on the following committees convened by Institute of Medicine: Committee on Dietary Risk Assessment in the WIC Program, Committee on Prevention of Obesity in Children and Youth, Committee on Nutrition Standards for National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, Committee on Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake, Subcommittee on Interpretation and Uses of the Dietary Reference Intakes, Committee to Review the WIC Food Packages, and the Data Needs Committee.