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University of Minnesota Extension

Making the healthy choice the easy choice

Making the healthy choice the easy choice

Educator showing group healthy food
SNAP-Ed educators like Rachel Jones (foreground) extend nutrition education to families by training food shelf volunteers and other organizations. Also pictured: Deisy De Leon Esqueda and volunteers.

Extension SNAP-Ed educators like Rachel Jones (foreground) extend nutrition education to families by training food shelf volunteers and other partner organizations. Also pictured: Deisy De Leon Esqueda, director at ECHO Food Shelf in Mankato (back) and volunteers.

In 2015, Extension SNAP-Ed and 281 partners helped nearly 40,000 people make healthy food choices.

Extension SNAP-Ed creates greater impact through partnerships

When clients visit the ECHO Food Shelf in Mankato, they enter a place subtly structured to help them make nutritious choices.

Some of what clients encounter is visual—an appealing setting where fresh fruits and vegetables are displayed prominently, for instance. Other features are practical. Text messages encourage clients to pick up produce while it's fresh. Volunteers use "healthy nudging"—helpful encouragement and preparation tips that promote vegetables and whole-grain foods, without any "shoulds" or judgment.

All result from a partnership between ECHO and the University of Minnesota Extension's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education (SNAP-Ed).

SNAP, previously known as food stamps, helps low-income individuals and families buy food. Recipients include the elderly, families and veterans, many of whom are employed. Nearly one-third of households receiving SNAP food assistance have to visit a food pantry to keep themselves fed, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). SNAP-Ed results in clients making healthy nutritional choices wherever they are. Both SNAP and SNAP-Ed are funded by the USDA.

Rachel Jones, Extension SNAP-Ed educator, leads Mankato-area programs that equip volunteers with approaches to "nudge" clients toward healthy choices. "We want to make healthy choices the easiest choices," she says.

Deisy De Leon Esqueda, director at ECHO, says it makes a difference when Jones teaches volunteers just how to do that. "Our volunteers have contact with many families walking through the door every day," says De Leon Esqueda. "For every volunteer trained by Extension, we reach many more clients with messages about how to be healthier, while treating them with respect and dignity."

"With innovations such as the texting program we helped create, as well as volunteer education, we can extend our reach to more people," says Kelly Kunkel, Extension health and nutrition educator.

The ECHO-Extension collaboration corresponds with the USDA's new SNAP-Ed guidelines, which move beyond Extension's historic emphasis on direct education to creating changes that foster consumption of food that's healthy, affordable and accessible, says Trish Olson, director of Extension family development programs. Olson and colleagues are working with obesity researchers in the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and elsewhere to study the effectiveness of their efforts.

Extension leaders began reframing statewide SNAP-Ed programs in 2015 to align with the USDA's expanded direction. Providing education and research-based information to groups that work directly with SNAP recipients enables Extension to have a lasting influence on the wide scope of issues that impact nutrition.

For more information about Extension's work with food shelves, visit Building Better Food Shelves.

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