Adapting EFNEP to Meet the Changing Needs of Food-Assistance Eligible Families: Investigating the Results of Program Responses to Welfare Reform

Year: 2004

Research Center: Department of Nutrition at the University of California, Davis

Investigator: Dickin, Katherine, and Jamie Dollahite

Institution: Cornell University

Project Contact:
Katherine Dickin
Human Ecology
Dept. of Nutritional Science
3M5 Martha van
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853
Phone: 607-255-7297


This research was designed to investigate how the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) adapted to keep services for low-income participants relevant, accessible, and effective during the period of welfare reform. EFNEP’s adaptation strategies were examined using qualitative assessment of the experiences of EFNEP personnel and quantitative analysis using program monitoring data on implementation and outcomes.

To gather the study data, indepth interviews were conducted with State EFNEP coordinators and selected county or regional EFNEP supervisors in three States. Six focus group discussions with EFNEP paraprofessional Community Nutrition Educators (CNEs) and two interviews with key informants were conducted in one State. Verbatim transcripts were analyzed qualitatively. A national dataset of selected program variables for the period of 1997-2003 was created from State-level data excerpted from the national EFNEP monitoring system. Regression analysis was used to examine trends over time in program implementation and outcomes at the national and State levels. The study also examined the characteristics of a subsample of 10 States with the strongest trends (5 positive, 5 negative) in behavior change score, and the proportion of program graduates reporting an improvement in dietary practices between program entry and completion.

EFNEP personnel reported that families transitioning to work continued to need EFNEP, but had little time to attend nutrition education classes. Low-income working parents who have less time for food preparation and acquisition reportedly need information on managing food resources, preparing quick healthy meals for home and work, and making good choices when eating away from home. To reach these participants, EFNEP collaborated with other agencies to deliver services to groups formed for other purposes, offered programs on weekends or evenings, and identified new audiences. Collaborating agencies included adult education and English language programs, residential programs addressing various needs (e.g., domestic abuse, homelessness, mental disabilities, and drug rehabilitation), welfare-to-work training programs, and occupational groups (e.g., daycare providers). CNEs now teach more groups, reach more diverse audiences, and address mandated audiences who must attend an agency’s program to avoid sanctions (such as loss of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits). Sustained collaboration with agencies serving similar populations and interested in providing nutrition education to their clients was critical to successful adaptation. This collaboration was difficult in some rural areas where few agencies were available to collaborate with EFNEP and where low population density and lack of transportation limited attendance at group educational sessions.

Most EFNEP personnel felt that EFNEP was adapting successfully to serve potential participants. The challenges posed by interagency collaboration included constraints on the number and length of lessons, resulting in less time for education and hands-on activities. Some personnel were concerned that shorter program duration and group methods could reduce impact. To preserve program quality, some sites established standards for minimum length and frequency of lessons and provided extra individual or homestudy lessons for people seeking more information and support. Training CNEs to work with new audiences, revising curricula to focus on priority topics, and subdividing large groups were other strategies to maintain effective teaching. Such strategies required resources and were not practiced equally in all sites. Program impact may depend on whether a supervisor is primarily concerned with program survival and maintenance of large caseloads, or employs strategies to sustain both high participation rates and program quality.

Analysis of national EFNEP monitoring data confirmed many of the qualitative findings. The proportion of participants reached by group (rather than individual) methods increased from under 60 percent in 1997 to almost 72 percent in 2002-03. Characteristics of EFNEP participants also changed. From 1997 to 2003, there was a reduction in the proportion of participants living in rural areas or small towns, an increase in the proportion of Hispanics, and a decrease in the proportion of African Americans.

Nationally, the percent of graduates reporting an improvement in dietary behavior between program entry and completion remained relatively constant, although trends in individual states varied widely. The rate of program completion increased, probably due to inclusion of more mandated participants and changes in graduation criteria associated with group methods. The size of the Federal funding allocation to a State was the program characteristic that best distinguished programs whose participants improved their dietary behavior (from inadequate to adequate by program graduation) from those state programs whose participants did not demonstrate improvement in dietary behavior.

EFNEP has developed innovative strategies to adapt to welfare reform and to contribute to its success by helping families practice healthy nutrition and resource management as they transition to work. While the trends identified in this study occurred during the era of welfare reform, EFNEP was also influenced by other socioeconomic and policy conditions. Continued funding constraints have implications for program access, quality, intensity, and duration.

These analyses illustrate how data from EFNEP’s extensive program monitoring system can be used to assess changes in program implementation and behavior change outcomes. Research would be enhanced if program monitoring data were complemented by an external EFNEP evaluation of contrasting program approaches and multiple outcomes among participants and nonparticipants.