Nutrition program makes eating healthy 'a snap'

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PORTLAND — Founded 30 years ago, Maine SNAP-Ed’s mission is to teach low-income Mainers how to use their food assistance benefits to support better nutrition and healthy eating habits.

With a new grant, Maine SNAP-Ed, which operates out of the University of New England, will be able to continue its work for the next five years, according to a recent press release.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or more colloquially known as food stamps, is a federal program that’s funded through the Farm Bill and overseen by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

SNAP-Ed funding also comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture; the allocation for Maine’s program this year is $3.2 million.

“Our nutrition educators are highly trained … (and) we’re thrilled to leverage (this money) to reach more SNAP-eligible Mainers and deepen our impact in every county,” said Elizabeth Pratt, the Maine SNAP-Ed program manager.

The overall goal of SNAP-Ed, she said, “is to help Mainers maximize their SNAP benefits (by learning) how to shop, cook and eat healthy food on a budget.” She said SNAP-Ed also works “to reduce the burden of obesity across the state.”

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Last year, for example, SNAP-Ed was able to deliver a total of 9,610 nutrition classes that reached nearly 41,000 youth and adults in all 16 counties, Pratt said.

Also in 2017, SNAP-Ed was able to implement school and childcare wellness policies, establish and promote school and community gardens and increase access to locally grown fruits and vegetables.

Pratt said SNAP-Ed depends “on strong partnerships to carry out this work,” and the organization’s outreach efforts are much appreciated.

“We’ve seen firsthand the impact of these valuable, hands-on, interactive learning opportunities in helping people make healthier food choices on a budget, leading to better health outcomes, reduced obesity, and lower health care costs,” said Renee Page, assistant director for Healthy Communities of the Capital Area in Gardiner.

Matt L’Italien, director of Somerset Public Health in Skowhegan, said the SNAP-Ed program has been “a vital part of our efforts to improve the nutrition and overall health of families in Somerset County.”

“We look forward to providing even more innovative and effective ways to educate and empower kids and adults to make better food choices,” he said.

When SNAP-Ed nutrition educators go to schools, “they teach children about healthy eating and exercise by introducing students to a variety of fruits and vegetables and engaging them in fun, hands-on activities,” Pratt said.

She said taste-testing can lead to increased fruit and vegetable consumption among children, which is also a great way to improve their nutrition needs.

“Maine has one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the country and also has a high obesity rate,” Pratt said. That’s why it’s so “important to teach children and their parents about healthy nutrition and to empower (families) to use their limited food dollars to purchase healthy food.”

With adults, Pratt said the SNAP-Ed educators teach meal planning, how to read nutrition fact labels and how to choose low-cost options that are still healthy.

Through its work SNAP-Ed has “seen a number of significant behavioral changes related to consumption,” she said. “Many of our class participants are now consuming more fruit and water. We are also seeing decreased consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and other sweets.”

To help SNAP beneficiaries get access to local produce, Pratt said the program works with the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets and the Maine Farmland Trust to allow them to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.

“From what I hear from our partners and our nutrition educators, families are often surprised and excited that they can use (food stamps) at farmers’ markets. They can even purchase seedlings to grow at home,” she said.

“There is strong evidence that SNAP-Ed programs across the country are making an impact and … extending Maine SNAP-Ed for five years means we can continue implementing the great work we have been doing,”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Reading labels is a good way for SNAP recipients to understand what they’re eating and how to make more health-conscious choices.

Teaching kids where food comes from and encouraging them to taste-test fruits and vegetables is key to SNAP-Ed’s mission of teaching low-income Mainers how to eat healthy on a tight food budget.