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Nutrition education program for food stamp recipients faces cuts

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Muakong Moua
Muakong Moua, right, chops green peppers as his classmates help at Washington Technology Magnet School in St. Paul on Jan. 11, 2013. The middle school students made taco salad as part of a nutrition education class.
MPR photo/Julie Siple

Recent action by the federal government to prevent dairy prices from skyrocketing will curtail an effort to help Minnesota food stamp recipients eat healthier.

As part of the fical cliff negotiations earlier this month, officials moved to keep the dairy industry's price support system from expiring. But to do so, Congress took about $110 million from the nutritional education component of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.

As a result, the education program aimed at helping low— income Americans make healthy food choices took a hit. Program leaders in Minnesota are scrambling to absorb what they expect will be a $2.6 million cut from a $9.7 million grant in FY2013. States have not received final word on the size of the cuts.

"We know the research shows that kids that eat well, parents that eat well, do better at work, they do better at school," said Bev Durgan, dean of University of Minnesota Extension, which runs the statewide program. "It cuts down on health care costs. So this program really is about helping people make better decisions."

Bev Durgan
"We really feel that people who are receiving nutritional funding, they also need to know how to best use that money," said University of Minnesota Extension Dean Bev Durgan. "This program helps people make those good decisions with the money that they receive." University of Minnesota Extension employs more than 100 community nutrition educators across Minnesota with federal SNAP-ed funding.
MPR photo/Julie Siple

Durgan said the program is particularly important at a time of economic crisis, when families are struggling to put healthy food on the table and health care costs are rising. Community nutrition educators help families stretch tight food budgets to afford enough healthy food. They also help children make smart decisions that will serve them well over a lifetime.

TEACHING GOOD HABITS IN FOOD CHOICES

On a recent day, middle school students at Washington Technology Magnet School in St. Paul gathered around Angie Thornhill, one of those nutrition educators, to make a simple taco salad.

As they chopped vegetables, the circle of boys learned about food groups and clogged arteries, absorbing information about what they should and shouldn't eat. 

Thornhill gave the students a McDonald's restaurant menu, complete with nutritional information so they could make choices.

"Let's see who can do this the fastest," Thornhill said. "Find out the one that has the most fat on the menu."

The students quickly determined that the big breakfast with hotcakes —  with 56 grams of fat —  was the winner. Or, as one could make a good case, the loser.

Angie Thornhill
Angie Thornhill, community nutrition educator with University of Minnesota Extension, teaches students at St. Paul's Washington Technology Magnet School how to make a simple taco salad on Jan. 11, 2013. Thornhill is one of more than 100 educators around the state who promote healthy eating for people eligible for food stamps. They teach smart shopping and cooking skills.
MPR photo/Julie Siple

Thornhill is one of more than 100 community nutrition educators across the state who teach cooking and shopping skills to people eligible for food stamps. Others work in food shelves, community organizations and senior centers.

Sometimes, they have to convince low-income people that they can afford healthy food. To do so, Thornhill uses inexpensive ingredients and suggests alternatives, such as frozen fruit, instead of fresh fruit, which is often more expensive.

"When you show them that you can access foods that are healthy, and it's relatively easy to cook —  it's not something where you see on TV, this gourmet meal, and there's all these things you can't pronounce, and it's just really far away from your everyday life —  it really makes a difference," she said.

She and her colleagues help low — income families stretch tight budgets so they have enough food for the entire month.

CUTS COULD AFFECT PROGRAM'S EFFECTIVENESS

The program took a hit in the recent deal to avoid automatic tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts, as Congress cut the nutrition education program by 27.7 percent in order to protect dairy prices.

In Minnesota, most of the state's $9.7 million grant goes to University of Minnesota Extension. A smaller amount goes to the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, which has nutrition educators on six reservations.

It's not clear how the cuts will affect the university's program, which aims to both promote healthy eating and prevent chronic disease. Durgan said extension leaders are looking for new funding sources and don't expect to lay off nutrition educators like Thornhill.

Jacques Campbell-Wood, Sergio Rodriguez Calan
Jacques Campbell-Wood, left, and Sergio Rodriguez Calan examine the fat content in various foods as part of a nutrition education class at Washington Technology Magnet School in St. Paul on Jan. 11, 2013. Students also learn cooking skills and do physical activities. The class is designed to prevent diabetes.
MPR photo/Julie Siple

But Durgan said the nutrition educators may go fewer places, and reach fewer people one- on-one, which could lessen the program's effectiveness.

"Those are tough decisions, because the research shows it's that one-on- one working with those families, working with the head of the household that makes those food choices, those are where you can make some of those long-term impacts," she said.

The state's hunger relief advocates say they're disappointed in the cut as the nutrition program addresses a frequent criticism from those who want to cut the food stamp program — that people who receive the benefits buy unhealthy food.

"I hear they think that people don't make good food choices," said Colleen Moriarty, director of Hunger Solutions Minnesota, an advocacy group for food shelves and the hungry. "This is actually a program that addresses that need."

Moriarty favors such educational programs to influence food choice, rather than restrictions on what people can buy. Still, she understands that Congress needed money to prevent a rise in dairy prices.

"This was just really a pressing emergency need," Moriarty said. "For dairy prices to go up so radically in such a short period of time would have had a dramatic impact on the people we serve and the public at large."

She is also relieved that while Congress cut nutrition education, it did not cut food stamp benefits.

Now that that decision has been made, Moriarty is preparing for a bigger battle over the next farm bill, which funds food stamps. The farm bill extension expires in September, and some members of Congress have argued for cuts.

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