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Welfare Recipients Gain Health, Shopping Savvy
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Low income people in 22 Mississippi counties can learn how to make grocery dollars last longer and improve their health from wiser food choices with the help of an expanding nutrition education program.
The Family Nutrition Program is an educational effort being conducted by Mississippi State University's Extension Service with assistance from matching funds by the state Department of Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service.
Dr. Barbara McLaurin, human nutrition specialist with MSU's Extension Service, said the $2 million program has just begun its third year. Half of the funding comes through the federal government and the other half is provided through MSU personnel. She said the success and expansion of the program warranted an additional $600,000 over last year's budget.
The Family Nutrition Program educates those eligible for food stamps on the basic skills needed for resource management, nutrition and food safety. The first year of the program focused on parents and caregivers; the second year expanded to include children. In October, the program expanded again to also include materials for the elderly.
"The short-term goal is to help families extend their food dollars further while purchasing nutritious items," McLaurin said. "The long-term goal is to increase self-sufficiency and improve health."
Charlotte Duncan of USDA's Food and Nutrition Service Food Stamp Program (Southeast Region) said she is proud of Mississippi's growth in the area of nutrition education, but she hopes to see the program expand with the help of other agencies to reach all needy families.
"Under the leadership of Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, we have a strong emphasis on overcoming hunger and improving nutrition," Duncan said. "Additionally, Virgil Conrad, our regional administrator with the Food and Nutrition Service, has set as a goal to reduce hunger by 2005."
Educational programs are delivered at the county level by para-professionals called program assistants who are trained and supervised by Extension home economists and special programs coordinators.
McLaurin said some program assistants are former welfare recipients themselves.
"Former welfare recipients have been there and know how tough it is to be on a limited food budget," McLaurin said. "Those individuals are excellent at recruiting participants because they identify so well with each other."
Programs are taught in a variety of settings including welfare offices, schools, churches, housing projects, doctors' offices, food pantries and grocery stores.
Oma Hibbler, director of the We Care Day Care Center in Richton, has invited program assistants in to conduct programs for day-care workers, children and elderly clients.
"Behavioral changes, like washing hands more often, can be seen even with 2-year-olds. It's never too early to start learning healthy habits," Hibbler said. "The program assistant taught about nutritious snacks to the senior adults. The lessons were conducted on an age-appropriate level with each group."
Hibbler said she would like to have nutrition education programs conducted on a regular basis for her clients.
Low income families are among the hardest to reach and retain throughout programs such as these, but they run a high risk of poor nutrition and health. Often the problem is not a lack of food, but a lack of nourishing foods.
"Obesity is a risk factor for diabetes and high blood pressure," McLaurin said. "Simple choices such as low-fat products, alternative cooking methods and increasing the variety of foods in the diet can lead to better health."