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Brighter Bites: A Model for Community-Academic Partnership to Improve Health

Three members posing in center of large grocery bags filled with vegetables.

By Wes Gibson

UTHealth Houston School of Public Health Center for Health Equity and Brighter Bites have recently hit the national spotlight through two initiatives- the Harvard Agribusiness Seminar and the White House Challenge to End Hunger and Build Healthy Communities. Working collaboratively, the Center for Health Equity and Brighter Bites have developed a data-driven, replicable model to support nutritious eating habits and better health outcomes.

In January 2024, Brighter Bites, a national non-profit that provides consistent access to fresh produce and nutrition education through schools and clinics to low-income children and their families, participated in the Harvard Agribusiness Seminar at Harvard Business School. Brighter Bites was one of twelve case studies presented to an audience of roughly 185 executives from food system-related firms across the globe. Attendees learned more about the current food system’s trends, challenges, and opportunities. Brighter Bites was highlighted as a case study for its evidence-based, data-driven approach to sustainably improving food security and dietary habits among low-income children and their families at scale. Brighter Bites is a USDA SNAP-ed approved evidence-based intervention and listed by the National Cancer Institute as an evidence-based cancer prevention and control program.

The White House Challenge to End Hunger and Build Health Communities is a national initiative part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health. Hosted at the White House in February of 2024, organizations from across the nation were invited to attend, share experiences, and connect for potential collaborative opportunities. Brighter Bites and UTHealth Houston publicly committed to a new initiative featuring produce prescription approaches through school-based health clinics run along with partnerships with health systems across the country.  

Brighter Bites started as a research project in partnership with the School of Public Health in 2012. The non-profit was designed as a health promotion program to provide consistent access to fresh produce plus nutrition education through schools serving low-income communities, children, and families. Since its inception, investigators have operationalized the Brighter Bites formula and theoretically grounded the program in Social Cognitive Theory. The theory considers the large role that individual experiences, behaviors of others, and environmental factors have on health behavior. The program developed a robust data backbone consisting of key performance indicators, implementation outcomes, and behavioral outcomes. These data are tracked consistently across all Brighter Bites sites using real-time monitoring software and program evaluation approaches. As of September 2023, Brighter Bites has expanded to operate in 204 schools across 12 cities in six states serving 78,570 families. The organization is currently partnering with school-based health centers to examine the program’s impact on child clinical health outcomes.

The partnership between the school and Brighter Bites has played a vital role in the organization’s success. The school brings the strength of academia as it incorporates evidence-based design and practices shown to effectively increase the consumption of fruits, vegetables, and fiber—a principal goal of Brighter Bites – along with providing technical assistance and building capacity within Brighter Bites to conduct program evaluation, data analytics, and participate in the scientific enterprise as a whole. The collaboration is anchored in trust and ongoing communication with the two institutional teams, who meet weekly to discuss partner needs, challenges, new opportunities, and collaboration. The partnership with Brighter Bites has also provided numerous opportunities for master's and doctoral public health students at UTHealth Houston to participate in public health research and practice while simultaneously contributing to Brighter Bites’ evidence-based foundation. Since its inception, researchers have published twenty-three peer-reviewed publications and over twenty-five abstracts presented at scientific conferences nationally.

The Center for Health Equity is committed to bringing this symbiotic community-academic partnership model to all population health efforts. The success of center efforts, such as school health initiatives, Food Is Medicine projects, Medical Legal Partnerships*, etc., all hinge on successful collaborations that allow each participating organization to leverage each other’s strengths for collective impact.  No single organization can successfully address the complex social, behavioral, environmental, and structural drivers of health inequities, but together, we can achieve a vision of healthy people across flourishing communities.

* Legal expertise is necessary to address the multitude of complex health-related social issues deeply embedded within federal, state, and local policies and law. Medical-Legal partnerships incorporate attorneys in the healthcare setting to directly address these issues.  

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