March 22, 2011

During a typical day, April Dawson and Omar Miralles might teach a group of teen moms about meal planning and food preparation, help new immigrants Americanize their cooking in healthy ways, and help senior citizens lower their sodium intake.

Dawson and Miralles are nutrition education program assistants with the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service in Jefferson County. They offer research-based nutrition information to individuals and families with low and limited incomes, many of whom receive benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP.

According to the 2010 Kentucky Profile of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education, about 21 percent of Kentuckians live below the poverty level. The Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services reported that more than 800,000 Kentuckians received SNAP benefits in 2010, which was a 10 percent increase from 2009. The average 2010 monthly benefit was $275.57 per person.

“My clients say the biggest obstacle they face to eating healthy is affordability,” Dawson said. “We show them how to maintain a whole family with limited resources by teaching them about the food guide pyramid, meal planning, farmers markets and local ingredient availability.”

While Miralles and Dawson work in the Louisville area, SNAP-Ed assistants are located in counties across Kentucky serving low income populations in cities and rural settings.

In the past year, extension personnel conducted nearly 11,500 educational programs about nutrition, reaching more than 700,000 SNAP recipients and those eligible for benefits. The estimated cost benefit of the nutrition education classes was more than $1.3 million.

Of those who participated in a Cooperative Extension SNAP-Ed program in the past year, 98 percent made a positive change in their diet, 69 percent now read food labels to select healthier foods, and 67 percent plan meals in advance. Program participants increased their fruit and vegetable consumption by an average of 1.5 servings a day, from 2 to 3.5 servings.

“It really shows the program is successful and working,” said Liz Buckner, UK nutrition education program director. “Our clients are making positive behavioral and dietary changes.”

Miralles, who speaks Spanish, primarily works with Louisville’s Latino population, which includes Mexicans, Guatemalans, Cubans, Salvadorians and Ecuadorians.

“I try to explain to my clients that I’m here to educate and make things easier for them,” he said. “The Latinos use a lot of fat and usually only eat tomatoes and chilies in their diets. As I’ve worked with them, I’ve seen an increase in their fresh, green vegetable consumption.”

He added that he helped one morbidly obese client lose 40 pounds with dietary changes and said the man now breathes easier and sleeps better at night.