Funds aid nutrition program

MU’s Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program got a USDA grant of $5.8 million.
Tuesday, March 2, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:57 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

MU’s Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program has received the largest grant in its 10-year history from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service.

The grant, which is contingent upon matching funds from MU, will give the program $5.8 million this year and can be renewed for an additional four years.

Mary Smyser, who supervises the program for northeast Missouri, said the grant is much needed.

“I would hope that we would be able to add more staff,” she said. She said the money would allow the program to distribute more food and educational materials to more schools.

The goal of the program is to promote lifelong health and fitness for people on food assistance. It primarily targets elementary school children. Of the 192,000 people who participated in the program last year, 90 percent were children.

The program sends trained professionals to work in about 60 percent of Missouri’s school districts. Professionals spend an average of 30 minutes per week for six weeks presenting information to students.

Prior nutrition experience isn’t required to be a professional, although many individuals have formal training. Each person hired for the program receives eight weeks of intensive training followed by two days a month of additional training.

Jo Britt-Rankin, interim associate dean of the College of Human Environmental Sciences extension programs, said the program targets schools with a large number of students on food assistance.

Although the Columbia School District does not participate in the program, all of the other school districts in Boone County have done so or do now.

Britt-Rankin said obesity is more common in lower-income households because families on food assistance often run out of food before the end of the month. This creates periods when families eat a lot or very little, which causes metabolisms to slow down as they try to compensate, she said.

In 2001, 23.6 percent of children in Missouri and 21.9 percent in Boone County lived in households that received food stamps, according to the Missouri Kids Count Data Book.

The professionals teach students about the importance of hand-washing, proper nutrition, food safety and physical activity.

“We’re looking at not only knowledge gain but also behavior change,” said Britt-Rankin. She added that attendance rates often improve in schools that use the program because increased soap use and proper nutrition means students miss fewer days of school.

Smyser said helping children understand the importance of physical activity is critical, especially because obesity-related diseases, such as Type II diabetes, are becoming more common in children.

“There have been studies done to show that for every dollar we invest into a nutrition program, we can reduce lifetime health costs by $8.74,” Britt-Rankin said.

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