Q & A on the Healthy Family CT Project

CSCH recently asked CSCH Affiliate Valerie Duffy, Professor in the Department of Allied Health Sciences, to tell us about the Healthy Family Connecticut Project, which provides food and nutrition information for Connecticut families.


Tell us about the origins of the Healthy Family Connecticut Project. What is it and why is it needed?

Our Healthy Family CT (HFCT) website is a direct result of the pandemic and the need to provide more opportunities for online nutrition education. The website serves as a functional and rich repository for quality fact-based nutrition information for low-income families in Connecticut. The site also includes access to cooking videos and step-by-step instructions on using their SNAP benefits to order groceries.


What are some strategies you are using to reach families?

Our SNAP ED team reaches families via the leveraging of long-term partnerships with community partners who already serve families at preschools, elementary schools, pantries and grocery stores. We have been able to maintain nutrition education outreach to preschool families, for example, via nutrition messages posted to the site’s internal parent messaging system. Our team has taken on a broad social media presence via Facebook and Instagram to highlight dietary quality in multiple ways: static posts, FB live “Cooking with UConn”, and recorded cooking videos. The majority of the population we reach—from millennial moms to seniors—have smartphones and engage with social media. We have also used print materials like postcards highlighting messages of healthy eating and inviting engagement with our HFCT website. Those have been distributed at community events like Foodshare mobiles or other food distribution sites.


You recently looked at how a pediatric-adapted liking survey (PALS) that measures children’s likes and dislikes could be used in schools to deliver tailored messages to motivate healthier behaviors. Tell us about what you found.

Students in two middle schools reported the PALS tailored messages as acceptable and useful, and students reported willingness (“like”) to trying at least one health behavior. Most students also reported wanting to receive more messages in the future. We found the PALS results to be generalizable across differing income-levels and student characteristics including race, ethnicity, reported food security, and sleep sufficiency. These findings suggest that the PALS plus message program could be effective in other school settings and with students with different characteristics. Overall findings showed that most students reported liking less healthy foods/beverages (sweets, sugary beverages) and disliking healthier foods/beverages (fiber, vegetables), suggesting a need for nutrition education among this population.


Your team has also recently developed a web-based nutrition education game. Tell us about that.

The Eat and Move as I Like (EAMAIL) web-based nutrition education game looks to promote healthy eating and enjoyable physical activity for obesity prevention among income challenged children and families. Our primary focus was to Investigate how health messages can be optimized to inform, motivate, and promote healthier eating. An evidence-based approach was taken during the development process, with evaluative research frameworks being used to rate and inform the acceptability of our health messages.

The EAMAIL game introduces players to each of the five MyPlate food groups (fruits, vegetables, grains, protein Foods, and dairy), each having a level dedicated to informing players on which foods they should eat and which they should avoid within each group. Players are tasked with collecting healthy foods and avoiding unhealthy foods and putting them in baskets. At the end of each level, players are then asked to rate their desire to eat more of any particular food group. Behavior change is evaluated through the observing player ratings prior to and after level completion. There are options to add layers of difficulty requiring players to make quick distinctions with regard to matching food items to their correct group in addition to avoiding unhealthy foods.


How do you think that health education teachers could incorporate both the PALS and the EAMAIL game into their curriculum?

In the future, we would love to work with school educators to incorporate PALS and tailored messages into a health or science curriculum. A basic premise would be to implement the PALS at the beginning of the health course to gather data on the nutrition education level of the students, current healthy/less healthy behaviors, and students’ interest on learning about healthy behaviors. The health education teacher could then structure this course based on the needs of the students. At the end of the school term, students could repeat the PALS for the health education teacher to track behavior change and determine which areas of nutrition education were found to be successful and which still needed work. Additionally, the PALS messages could be displayed across school computer and TV screens and used in school-wide nutrition campaigns for the continued promotion of nutrition and healthy behaviors throughout the school year and when students are not in health education class. The EAMAIL game can be paired with the PALS program to using gaming to reinforce healthy behaviors in a fun and engaging way.


How can people find out more about the EAMAIL, PALS, or the Healthy Family Connecticut project?

To find out more about the PALS, parents can visit our Healthy Teens and Tweens page and see our FAQs, nutrition education resources for teens and tweens, and view the PALS using the Tailored Health Tips tab located at the bottom of the screen. Additionally, parents can contact Valerie Duffy (valerie DOT duffy AT uconn DOT edu) for more information on the PALS or related projects. To play and/or learn more about the EAMAIL game, visit the Healthy Teens and Tweens link. At the top of the webpage, click on the “Fun, Nutritional Game!” link to access the game.

The Healthy Family CT website is housed in UConn’s College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources (CAHNR). Visit the site to see a variety of fact-based information and tips for healthy eating, physical activity and cooking more at home. Our Nutrition Corner Blog houses over 25 topic articles on everything from Avoiding Food Marketing Traps to Getting Creative in the Kitchen with Mushrooms! Visitors can find learning opportunities that include nutrition messages sent directly to their cell phones, virtual classes, joining a private Facebook group to learn more about specific nutrition topics, or even speaking directly to a UConn nutritionist. Come visit us!