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Published January 16, 2013, 04:20 PM

Federal cuts to nutrition education program could hamper efforts in Minn.

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

By: Julie Siple, Minnesota Public Radio News

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

Early 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 a likely $2.6 million cut from a $9.7 million grant.

“We know the research shows that kids that eat well, parents that eat well, do better at work, they do better at school,” says Bev Durgan, dean of the 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.”

Durgan says nutrition education programs are 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. Extension 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.

The students who are learning good habits include a circle of boys in the seventh and eighth grade at Washington Technology Magnet School in St. Paul, where Angie Thornhill, a community nutrition educator regularly invites them to a table of ingredients. From learning how to cook simple recipes to how to count calories, the students absorb information about what they should, and shouldn’t, eat.

Put to the test

On a recent day, the students made taco salad with Thornhill’s help. She then gave them a McDonald’s restaurant menu, complete with nutritional information so they could make choices.

“Let’s see who can do this the fastest,” Thornhill says. “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.

Thornhill, who works for University of Minnesota Extension, 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 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 says.

The work 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 Minnesota, most of the state’s $10 million grant goes to University of Minnesota Extension, which has community nutrition educators all over the state. A much smaller amount goes to the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, which does work on six reservations.

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

Less effective

But Durgan says 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 says.

The state’s hunger relief advocates say they’re disappointed in the cut as the nutrition program addresses a frequent criticism of 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,” says 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 says. “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’s also is 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.