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Loss of nutrition educators through SNAP cuts already felt locally

Nancy Winter, a Kandiyohi County nutrition educator with the University of Minnesota Extension Service, right, helped teach cooking classes to teen moms as shown in this Tribune file photo of a class conducted in October 2011. Because of federal budget cuts, the University of Minnesota Extension program has eliminated about 40 percent of its county nutrition educators. The staff reductions take effect next week. Tribune file photo by Carolyn Lange

On the second Tuesday of every month, nearly 200 people line up at the Willmar Area Food Shelf to receive free produce delivered by a truck from Second Harvest Heartland. Besides the typical apples and potatoes, there can be a hodgepodge of fruits and vegetables like lemon cucumbers, bok choy and squash that not everyone knows how to prepare.

For years, a bilingual nutrition educator with the University of Minnesota Extension’s office in Willmar would cook up a quick and nutritious dish with the produce from the truck, give samples and recipes to the people standing in line and answer their food prep and cooking questions.

It was a great way to help people living in poverty to eat healthfully and economically, said Christie Kurth, director of the Willmar Area Food Shelf.

“You can give family a basket of food, but if they don’t know how to cook it, it doesn’t solve hunger,” said Kurth.

Having someone take time to “encourage them and teach them” makes people less apprehensive about eating fresh produce, she said.

But even though the truck of produce will be still be coming each month, the face-to-face nutrition education ended last month.

Because of federal cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, still commonly referred to as food stamps, and because the federal farm bill that funds the program has not been passed, about 40 percent of the nutrition educators have been cut in Minnesota, said Aimee Viniard-Weideman, assistant dean of communications for University of Minnesota Extension.

The job cuts, which are set to take effect Jan. 15, will affect communities in every county.

Most counties had at least one educator through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — Kandiyohi County has had two — who provided nutrition education programs for low-income residents at schools, senior centers, churches, nonprofit agencies and food shelves.

They helped teach teen moms how to buy groceries and cook, worked with young families enrolled in the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program and helped senior citizens stretch their food dollars with hands-on classes.

That program will now, instead, have 45 regional educators who will not necessarily have one-on-one contact with residents but will develop programs, work with community partners and “train the trainer,” said Viniard-Weideman.

It’s hoped volunteers or community organizations will step up, be trained and provide the classes.

Jodi Gravning has been hired to cover an eight-county region that stretches to the South Dakota border. Gravning will be based from the Kandiyohi County Extension office in Willmar.

Kandiyohi County Commissioner Harlan Madsen said he is concerned there will not be a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program educator dedicated just to Kandiyohi County and he questioned how the programs can be maintained with one person traveling so many miles between eight counties.

“It’s going to affect seniors. It’s going to affect a vast number of people in this community, including immigrants and the working poor,” said Madsen. “Hunger is a need that needs to be discussed.”

No one disputes that restructuring the program will have challenges.

“It’s a very significant shift,” said Viniard-Weideman. “You can’t reduce staff by 40 percent and not see changes in the program.”

The federal cuts were actually made a year ago but Extension continued to fund the educators for an additional year by using reserves.

Madsen said the University was “kind of forced into a box” to make the budget cuts now.

He said counties do have the option of contracting with University of Minnesota Extension to fund an educator strictly with local tax dollars, but he said that has not been discussed yet by Kandiyohi County officials.

Madsen said the federal funding cuts for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program put the University and counties in a “very difficult situation.”

Viniard-Weideman said during the “first wave” of the restructuring, as the new regional educators get their bearings, they will assess the programs and try to find ways to address community needs in an attempt to avoid gaps. They will have the support of eight regional Extension nutrition educators, including one based at the Mid-Central Research and Outreach Center in Willmar.

Kurth said the food shelf clients will miss the meal samples and the cooking classes.

The clients “looked forward to the educator being there” and would ask questions not only about the food of the day but about past recipes.

 “They’d be excited about it,” said Kurth, who predicted there will be “unspoken ramifications” because of the program cuts.

“I’m very disappointed because I don’t think the people making decisions necessarily understand the impact the educators have,” she said. “This was a way we could reach those families in poverty.”

Kurth said she will continue to give recipes to clients and will also look for volunteers to teach free classes.

Meanwhile, Viniard-Weideman said the University will continue to look for other sources of funding and partnerships that in the future could bolster the nutrition education offered through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.  

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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