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Food education program may not receive federal funds

A nutrition education program aimed at West Virginia's low-income families could wind up on the chopping block, depending on how negotiations in Washington play out.

The SNAP-Ed program provides nutrition education services to families receiving assistance through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.

The program's funding was cut by 28 percent in 2013 as a result of federal budget negotiations.

And while West Virginia's SNAP-Ed was expecting $3.3 million in federal funding for the 2014 fiscal year, it only will receive $985,000 until Congress passes a long-term funding bill.

There's no guarantee the program will survive the budgeting process fully funded, however.

"Maybe we'll make that up through the rest of 2014, but that is less money than we had budgeted for," said Cindy Fitch, West Virginia's SNAP-Ed program director. "No one knows what Congress will do."

Members of Congress, who have so far failed to agree on a 2014 budget, managed last month to pass a continuing resolution funding the federal government through January. Budget talks are set to begin soon, and it's difficult to tell which programs might face cuts.

But there's plenty of reason to believe federal lawmakers -- at least those in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives -- might seek to cut funding to SNAP-Ed.

The program's budget was already sliced by 28 percent But the House's recently passed version of the farm bill would cut an additional $26 million to SNAP-Ed, as part of a larger $40 billion SNAP cut.

The Democrat-controlled Senate's version of the bill did not include those cuts. Members of both chambers began meetings last week to hash out a compromise bill.

And even if lawmakers come to an agreement on the farm bill, Congress will soon begin discussions on next year's budget. SNAP-Ed could again find itself on the chopping block.

As the name suggests, SNAP-Ed provides people with education on nutrition.

"It teaches SNAP families how to buy and prepare healthy food...and stretch their food dollar and get to the end of the month without running out of food," said Amy Gannon, a Charleston dietician who works with the program through West Virginia University's Extension Service.

Most of that work is directed at children, who make up three-quarters of the United States' SNAP participants.

In West Virginia, educators with SNAP-Ed visit schools where at least 50 percent of students receive free or reduced meals. 

Their lessons, which are structured to comply with state Board of Education content standards, help introduce children to healthy foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Educators also seek to encourage better eating behaviors, as well as physical activity.

SNAP-Ed also provides nutrition education services outside of the school year, talking with children at day camps and other programs.

The adult side of the program, operated through WVU's extension services, hosts workshops in low-income communities around the state, helping residents learn how to stretch their monthly food budgets.

Gannon said West Virginia's SNAP-Ed staffers reach about 20,000 children each year, along with several thousand adults.

"It's a shame to cut services that will benefit the long-term health and productivity of that group of children," she said.

According to the nonprofit Public Health Institute, each dollar spent on nutrition education could save as many as $10 in future healthcare costs.

Gannon said the West Virginia SNAP-Ed program will be able to sustain its programs for right now, but that won't last if Congress decides to cut the its budget again.

"You can maintain for a while but after time, as cuts continue to get deeper and deeper, you have to cut services," she said.

She said cutting services means the program will hire fewer people and, as a result, reach fewer SNAP participants.

For more information about the SNAP-Ed program, visit http://familynutrition.ext.wvu.edu.

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or zack.harold@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ZackHarold.


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