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Nutrition educators in Kandiyohi County facing cuts

WILLMAR — A cut in federal food support funding means the number of nutrition educators in Kandiyohi County will be cut in half — from two employees to just one.

It’s a ripple effect that will be felt across the state as part of the restructuring of University of Minnesota Extension nutrition programs. The programs do such things as teach teen moms and families living in poverty how to cook nutritious meals on a tight budget.

“It will be a significant change,” said Harlan Madsen, chairman of the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners and a member of the Extension board of directors.

Madsen said 40 percent of Extension’s nutrition staff and 28 percent of its funding will be cut.

“We’re really stuck with making some very tough choices,” Madsen told the other commissioners Tuesday during their board meeting.

Madsen said, however, because Willmar is now home to a University of Minnesota Extension regional office, the community may have access to one or more nutrition educators based there, besides retaining a full-time nutrition educator at the county office.

“We are very fortunate,” said Madsen.

The University of Minnesota Extension announced the restructuring late Monday.

The change is the result of cuts initiated in January for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s education fund. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is often still referred to as the Food Stamp program.

In a news release, the state’s Extension program said because funding cuts tied to the American Taxpayer Relief Act were not been restored and the “future of federal funding under the Farm Bill has not yet been resolved,” the number of nutrition education staff must be reduced to match current federal funding levels.

“Because of the importance of nutrition education to low-income Minnesotans, we did not make immediate cuts in the program,” said Bev Durgan, University of Minnesota Extension Dean.

“Since January, we have been working with our federal partners to try to restore the federal funding, while covering the cuts with significant cost saving measures and non-federal funds.”

This week it was decided reserve funds could no longer be used to prop up the program, said Madsen.

The restructuring includes creating a regional education program using Extension’s regional delivery model, with nutrition staff covering multiple county regions.

Counties may choose to contract with Extension for additional county-specific services as they do now for 4-H program coordinators and county agriculture educators, according to the University.

All the existing staff, including the two nutrition educators in Kandiyohi County, will have to reapply for their jobs next month, knowing that there will be a 40 percent reduction in the overall number of staff.

Those that aren’t offered a job will receive layoff notices in mid-January.

Madsen said the news likely hit the Kandiyohi County nutrition educators hard.

“I’m sure today they’re trying to digest this whole thing,” he said. “It has an effect, obviously, on the employee. It has an effect on the people that they are providing consultation and service and programs.”

Durgan said Extension will continue to provide nutrition education to low-income families, “but we will have fewer nutrition educators to reach the same number of participants.”

“We have a proven track record of success with Extension’s regional delivery model, which we will rely on as we work closely with our local and state partners to deliver nutrition education to low-income families in new ways,” she said.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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