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UA Cooperative Extension and the Arizona Nutrition Network are helping low-income parents use limited resources to buy healthier food.
More than 1 million adults and children in Arizona do not have enough money for groceries. They shop with food stamps. They buy staples like bread, beans and milk. Fresh fruits and veggies seem like a luxury they cannot afford.
Through a program known as SNAP-Ed, they learn how to buy healthier foods on a limited budget. They're learning to choose low-fat dairy products, whole-grain breads and tortillas, fresh in-season produce – and to cook with easy healthy recipes. They're also encouraged to increase physical activity.
The goal is to help low-income people buy the food they need for good health – and ultimately reduce obesity – the gateway to diabetes, heart disease and cancer. In Maricopa County 22.9 percent of adults are obese and 30 percent of children between the ages of 10 and 17 are either overweight or obese.
SNAP-Ed stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – Education, formerly known as the food stamp program. Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, SNAP-Ed is implemented in Arizona by the state's Arizona Nutrition Network and University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, part of the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, serving eight counties to date.
Guiding adults to make healthy choices
Near the end of last year, SNAP-Ed changed its primary focus from in-school programs to adults. The reason is simple: Adults make the food choices in the home.
"If we really want to change behavior, we have to get to the parents and other adults making choices for kids," said Stephanie Martinez of the UA's Maricopa County Cooperative Extension. She supervises the SNAP-Ed program in the state's largest metropolitan area.
So how do you reach adults who use food stamps? You go to emergency food sources like St. Mary's and United Food Banks; public housing projects like the Tanner Terrace; the Department of Economic Security; the Women, Infants and Children program, plus parent organizations at schools.
It's not easy. But it is effective.
"We tailor the program to each site, offering different levels of service. We want them to see as many messages, as often as possible, everywhere they go," Martinez said.
Approaches vary because the population ranges from 20-something new parents, to 45-year olds recently laid off from longtime jobs, to seniors with limited mobility.
On any given day, the SNAP-Ed team could deliver posters and fliers, give10-minute talks at the Department of Economic Security and distribute take-home goodie bags with shopping tips and recipe cards – or present an hour-long class at a senior housing complex.
Seniors steam veggies and get moving
"Best broccoli ever."
That was the feedback from one senior who used the new plastic steamer she got in a SNAP-Ed class to cook fresh broccoli in the microwave. Her enthusiasm inspired others who then agreed – steamed broccoli was way tastier than broccoli boiled in water – and more nutritious.
Betty Thompson, Maricopa County Cooperative Extension program coordinator, said seniors really respond to the presentations. They go back to their pantries, freezers and refrigerators to read food labels, checking on fat, sodium and sugar content. They've formed walking groups, even signed up for Zumba classes at a nearby church.
Thompson finds that people would like to make healthier food choices or be more active – but aren't sure how. Some young parents are surprised to learn that skim milk has all the same nutrients as whole milk – but none of the fat. They also don't realize there is a gram of butter fat in every ounce of whole milk. Starting young children on low-fat or skim milk is a healthy choice. Buying fat-free or low-fat cheeses and yogurts also is recommended, Thompson said.
Kids like to prepare their own food
Thompson recommends involving children in food preparation. They like to eat what they fix themselves, she says. Fruit and cheese wands are nutritious snacks and easy to assemble. So is a recipe called Ants on a Log – celery filled with peanut butter and lined with raisins.
She reminds parents not to bad-mouth certain foods. "If they make disparaging remarks, the kids won’t eat it."
The SNAP-Ed team also urges less sitting and more moving.
Martinez said, "If you tell a busy mom she needs to exercise 30 minutes a day she'll say 'no way.' But if you suggest 10 minutes in the morning, a 10-minute walk at lunch and some leg lifts on the couch while watching TV, she may decide 'I can do that.' It adds up to meet the guidelines. We promote simple things – like walking."
Last year in Arizona 470,060 households received food stamp benefits. That included 558,985 adults and 524,466 children. Benefits totaled $137 million, according to Scottie Misner, a UA specialist in nutritional sciences who oversees the SNAP-Ed program in Arizona. The average per-person allotment was $126.26.
Teaching adults to make healthy choices for their families is vitally important, Martinez said. "Less than one quarter of adults meet dietary guidelines for fruit and vegetable consumption. Barely half meet physical activity guidelines. We definitely have a lot of work ahead of us."