Linda F. Benedict, McClure, Olivia J.
Good nutrition is key to living a happy, healthy life. For the 903,000 low-income Louisiana residents who get help paying for food through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), however, knowing how to make good eating choices on a limited budget can be difficult.
SNAP-Ed nutrition educators have been working to change that since 1988, when Cooperative Extension faculty in Wisconsin partnered with the state SNAP agency and the federal government to launch nutrition outreach programs for low-income people.
Today, SNAP-Ed is conducted nationwide. In most states, land-grant universities contract with state SNAP agencies to provide educational programs to people who are eligible for SNAP. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service reimburses up to half of states’ SNAP-Ed costs.
Marquetta Reynolds, East Baton Rouge Parish nutrition educator, said SNAP-Ed teaches children and adults about the MyPlate food groups, hand washing, nutrition labels and exercise. Adults also learn about eating health on a budget and on the go.
“I feel that the community really, really needs this information,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds said most participants enter SNAP-Ed unaware of things like their sodium intake or what leads to certain health issues. Often, these people simply do not have the resources to know those things, she said.
“People just don’t understand what they’re doing to their bodies when they eat a lot of these foods,” Reynolds said.
After completing lessons, Reynolds said participants sometimes tell her they started paying attention to nutrition labels or lost a couple of pounds by exercising more. Children in the program enjoy telling Reynolds about new fruits and vegetables they are trying.
Seeing that progress is extremely rewarding, Reynolds said, because SNAP-Ed participants represent an audience truly in need of nutrition information. Thanks to SNAP-Ed, they not only improve their own health, but also that of their family and friends by setting a better example.
The Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) is a similar effort designed to help low-income families with children and low-income youth eat and live healthier. EFNEP started in 1968 and launched in Louisiana in 1969. It is conducted through the Cooperative Extension Service nationwide.
Heli Roy, LSU AgCenter EFNEP coordinator, said EFNEP must constantly evolve to keep up with changing dietary guidelines and research. The latest major change was in 2010, when MyPlate replaced what was called the “food pyramid.” This pyramid ranked foods that should be eaten most – breads, cereals, fruits and vegetables – at the bottom and least – fats, sugars and oils – at the top.
Over the years, EFNEP teaching has become more active and client-centered, Roy said. Food demonstrations are an important part of lessons because they show participants affordable ways to prepare foods they may be unfamiliar with. EFNEP educators also provide and demonstrate healthy recipes.
The educators are paraprofessionals who are recruited from the community and trained in nutrition. This is a highly successful approach, Roy said, because participants are more likely to actually make positive health choices if they are learning about them from someone in their community.
In Louisiana, about 40 paraprofessionals teach EFNEP classes in 11 urban parishes.
“This is one of the programs that really goes into the communities and teaches these individuals in poverty how to eat well and improve their lives,” Roy said. “If we lost it, our numbers in terms of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and obesity would be even higher.”
EFNEP enrolls participants for one year. Graduates of the program sometimes become EFNEP volunteers because they liked it so much, Roy said.
Gina E. Eubanks, LSU AgCenter associate vice chancellor and program leader for nutrition and food sciences, said EFNEP and SNAP-Ed are valuable programs because they reach an audience that does not always have access to nutrition education. The goal is to help people create and sustain positive changes in their behavior.
Food is a choice that people make each and every day, Eubanks said, so it is important to make sure everyone has information that empowers them to make good choices. If they understand the benefits of eating healthy, they are more likely to do so.
“Extension is founded on educating the population on a better way of life,” Eubanks said. “A better way of life includes the whole picture. It’s not just telling them how to farm better, but how to eat better — and not only how to eat better, but how to save money on the food they eat.”
Olivia McClure is a student worker in LSU AgCenter Communications.
(This article was published in the spring 2014 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)