Maine should promote this program that’s doing more good than restricting food stamps would

I bristled at the idea of the Bangor Daily News editorial board’s support of the concept of purchasing restrictions in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. I have a few posts about a variety of reasons why I disagree with such measures and could write a few more. Specifically, though, I disagreed with the board’s suggestion that “the USDA is missing out on opportunities to use SNAP to more effectively promote healthy food choices.”

Apparently the editorial board has never heard of SNAP-Ed, a USDA nutrition education program. SNAP-Ed “aims to improve the likelihood that persons eligible for SNAP will make healthy food choices within a limited budget and choose physically active lifestyles consistent with the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Guidance.” I’ll be getting into greater detail about the program in a minute, but a great summary of the program can be found by clicking here.

Here’s a list of some of the program’s achievement’s according to the Association of SNAP-Ed Nutrition Education Administrators:

  • Increases in fruit and vegetable consumption and physical activity in participating low-income adults and children

  • Increases in dietary intake of fiber, calcium, iron, and other key nutrients needed for a healthier diet.

  • Unprecedented gains in fruit and vegetable consumption by low income residents using social marketing nutrition networks

  • Increases in food research management skills and decreased the instance of food shortage before the end of the month.

Frankly, I am not sure why DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew hasn’t made the program more well known. Maybe it’s Mayhew who has been “missing out on opportunities, not the USDA.” Maybe the public would be better served by press conferences to promote SNAP-Ed, instead of press conferences discussing unproven restrictive measures. It’s a program that more Mainers, SNAP recipients and service providers need to know about.

More people also need to know that the USDA has no reason to approve restrictive measures because it has no reason to believe they will work in altering behavior and improving health. A USDA document cited in the editorial clearly states, “The body of research on the Food Stamp Program does not support the view that restricting food choices will result in more healthful food purchases and consumption or improved dietary outcomes.”

Further, the report goes on to say: “food stamp recipients are no more likely to consume soft drinks than are higher-income individuals, and are less likely to consume sweets and salty snacks.” These readily available facts undermine the thinking behind restrictive measures for the purposes of the SNAP program.

But that doesn’t mean the USDA isn’t concerned about the nutrition and health of SNAP recipients. Rather than “missing out on opportunities” to contribute to changes in dietary habits, the USDA is creating them through SNAP-Ed. That’s right, SNAP-Ed is an example of a branch of the federal government is using its resources in a very targeted, monitored, innovative way to impact longterm change.

SNAP-Ed is “promoting good health or postponing the onset of diet-related chronic diseases by empowering participants to establish healthier eating habits,” says a 2010 USDA/Food Nutrition Services report to Congress. And the USDA is insisting that only evidence-based best practices are used, as is suggested a variety of resources related to the program.

I knew SNAP-Ed existed, but I didn’t know enough about it to write a post so I called Joan Ingram at the University of New England who oversees the program through a contract with Maine DHHS. UNE then contracts with Healthy Maine Partnerships (a great example of public health systems working effectively) to hire the actual educators who work with participants in a variety of capacities and settings.

Ingram is very proud of the program, who wouldn’t be? She reported that in fiscal year 2015, Maine SNAP-Ed reached 36,283 individuals, interacting with them 151,086 times. Based on their insistence on the use of evidence-based best practices, the USDA emphasizes the power of multiple interactions with SNAP-Ed participants to effect real change in behaviors.

Ingram told me  that some of these interactions happen in the form of classes and other forms of instruction.  Some interactions occur as follow-up postcards and online contacts that include shopping and cooking tips and recipes. In the same vein, Ingram said an upcoming campaign will share stories and tips from every day moms themselves, whose tips come from actual experience.

Ingram and I discussed the importance of relationship building. The better the relationship between educators and participants, the more likely the interactions will result in changes in behavior. These relationships also help educators know how to improve formats to meet participants’ needs.

Ingram says she’s not alone in her pride in SNAP-Ed. From the nutritionists and evaluators to the 35 educators on the ground all over our state to the participants themselves, people are excited to be a part of the program. SNAP-Ed is 100 percent funded by the USDA, and Maine’s current allocation is just under $5 million annually. UNE has handled the contract for four years.

From my research and my conversation with Ingram, I learned the program is multi-faceted, outcome-oriented, and strictly regulated by the USDA. (Click here for a sample of research- and evaluation-based materials.) Ingram told me SNAP-Ed, whose motto is “shop, cook, eat healthy on a budget,” mainly targets women and children, as the majority of SNAP recipients are in families with children. The SNAP-Ed Guiding Principles say that nationally 19 percent of recipients are women “in households with children” and “an additional 45 percent of recipients are children.”

Ingram added that because of Maine’s high rate of seniors, our SNAP-Ed also has programming geared toward that population. The motto for the senior program is “Eat smart, live strong.”

She explained the curriculum is made up of several categories and can be modified to meet the learning needs of different participants. The instruction takes place in public housing communities, schools, community centers, libraries, churches, grocery stores, and other locations — or as Ingram put it, “anywhere people already are.” She acknowledged that meeting people where they already are is critical in a rural state like ours, where transportation is problematic for many participants.

Ingram talked about how much fun the educators have with the K-3 “Pick a better snack” program. These educators go into classrooms once a month (eligibility for schools is based on the number of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch) and introduce kids to various fruits and vegetables. The instruction includes the chosen produce as a snack and lessons on the selected snack’s “backstory” — where it comes from, how it grows, etc.

Ingram said that the kids love it and the nutrition directors in the participating schools love the program, as well. The kids carry their new tastes into the cafeteria and are more open to the healthy food being offered there. Materials are also sent home to parents because the USDA believes involving parents and families as a whole will most likely support healthier choices.

Another class, Cooking Matters, happens in conjunction with the Good Shepherd Food Bank (another thing it does), the lead partner of this aspect of SNAP-Ed, and Hannaford.  The classes are two hours long, meet six times and work with recipes provided by the USDA, which has strict nutritional standards for the recipes it uses.  Hannaford donates the food used in the classes as well as take-home groceries for participants, who are also given a Cooking Matters cookbook.

One group of educators takes participants on tours of grocery stores to improve their shopping skills in terms of both nutrition and budget. Besides reporting on their contacts and maintaining their curriculum, educators also meet regularly to discuss how to improve the program and to share ideas about what they’ve found is working.

I told Ingram I’d seen the grocery tours going on at my local store, and it was nice to finally know who was running them. She said she learned a couple pointers herself when she went over the information.

And from what I learned in my research, it turns out most of us could probably benefit from similar nutritional or shopping education. We might do well to heed the words from a report to Congress that I cited earlier:

Most Americans consume too few fruits, vegetables and grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk products while consuming too much of fat, sweetened beverages and sodium.  These trends are seen in the young and the old, and cut across all income levels.

My own personal view in summary: a closer look at the data, rather than supporting restrictive measures, suggests that most of us would benefit from a little SNAP-Ed or other shopping and nutritional education ourselves. As for the dietary habits of SNAP recipients, if SNAP-Ed continues to grow and serve, more and more of them are going to be just fine.

For more information about SNAP-Ed, email:, or call:  207-221-4560.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.