A Controlled Evaluation of a Food Dudes Healthy Eating Programme for children in Special Schools

Academic: Bangor University
Student: Amy Roberts-Mitchell
Company partner: Denbighshire County Council

Wales is an obesity hotspot, with the 5th highest child obesity rates of 35 OECD countries: in 2010, 36% of Welsh 2-15 year olds were overweight and 19% of these were obese. The literature shows that these rates are typically doubled for children attending Special Schools. These children often show change resistant behaviours such as idiosyncratic eating patterns and reluctance to try new foods, presenting the researchers with additional challenges. Although it is known that they are more likely to develop health problems and obesity than their peers in mainstream schools, they have been entirely overlooked in the existing research until now.

My Masters Research project has involved implementing the Food Dudes programme in special schools. The Food Dudes progarmme is based on the three psychological principles: role-modeling, rewards and repeated tasting. The intervention is split into two phases: the Intensive Phase (16 days) and the Maintenance Phase (rest of the academic year).

The Intensive Phase takes place in the classroom where the teachers read out DVD episodes or letters. These DVD episodes or letters are about four characters called the Food Dudes who act as role models for the children. Fruit and vegetable pairings are then provided for the children on a rotational basis. The children receive a prize if they try or consume the fruit and vegetable.

The Maintenance Phase takes place in the dining room and at home. Dining room changes include, Food Dude branding, menu changes and fruit and vegetable repositioning. Children are also provided with fruit and vegetable boxes to take home and rewards are slowly phased out using tick cards.

By collaborating with my supervisor and company partner Denbighshire County Council, three special schools were selected to take part in the study.

Two intervention schools in Denbighshire received the Food Dudes programme and fruit and vegetable provision. One control school in Wrexham received only fruit and vegetable provision.

Participants included 430 children with intellectual disabilities and/or autism spectrum disorder. Direct observations were used to measure fruit, vegetable, and sweet and fatty food consumption.

Observations took place before the programme (baseline), after the Intensive Phase (post intensive phase) and 9-weeks after the Maintenance Phase started (follow-up).

Results have been analysed in one intervention school so far. Preliminary results show significant increases in children’s fruit and vegetable consumption and significant decreases in their consumption of sweet and fatty foods in the interventions school at post intensive phase, compared to baseline. We hope to find similar results in the second intervention school.

These findings demonstrate that the Food Dudes Programme can be used in Special Schools to improve children’s diet and help reduce obesity.