Less than a year after saying it wanted to dismantle a nutrition education program for low-income residents, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services is moving to renew the program for up to five years.
The state agency recently published a request for proposals from organizations interested in running the federally funded nutrition education program known as SNAP-Ed, which pays for cooking classes, grocery store field trips, school sessions and other activities aimed at helping food stamp recipients and others around the state cook and eat nutritiously on a tight budget.
Maine receives money from the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service every year that it’s required by law to use for nutrition education. The state is receiving $3.9 million for the 2018 program year, which started Oct. 1 and runs through Sept. 30, 2018.
“The Maine SNAP-Ed focus on healthy eating on a budget and obesity prevention is integral to the Department’s vision of Maine people living safe, healthy and productive lives,” reads DHHS’ request for proposals, which it posted to a state website for bid requests on Nov. 6.
But in February, then-DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew told federal officials that the state wanted to end the nutrition education efforts in favor of simply giving the federal funding to food pantries and schools, so they could distribute healthy foods without the education component.
“It is clear that a different approach must be considered,” Mayhew wrote to federal officials in seeking their permission to waive the nutrition education requirements for Maine. “While nutrition education is crucial, it should simply be conducted in school settings as part of school curricula, and overseen by the Department of Education.”
Mayhew’s request for permission to drop SNAP-Ed was tied in with another request from the state that sought federal permission to bar food stamp recipients from using their benefits to purchase sugary drinks and candy.
After submitting the request for both changes to the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service in February, Maine DHHS in May withdrew the request to drop SNAP-Ed and told the federal agency that it planned to carry out the program “in the same manner as we have over the last four years,” Emily Spencer, a DHHS spokeswoman, wrote in an email to the BDN.
Spencer didn’t explain why DHHS made the change. Mayhew left her post at DHHS in May to launch a campaign for governor.
A spokeswoman for the Food and Nutrition Service said this week that the agency is still “evaluating the request” to bar food stamp recipients from using their benefits to purchase sugary drinks and candy. The federal agency has never before approved a junk food and sugary beverages ban.
The Obama administration last year rejected a similar request from the LePage administration; the agency also rejected requests from New York City in 2011 under the Obama administration and from Minnesota in 2004 under the Bush administration.
The successful bidder for the contract to run SNAP-Ed would take over on Oct. 1, 2018 and operate the program for up to five years, contingent on DHHS’ renewal of the contract each year, according to the department’s request for proposals. DHHS isn’t obligated to make an award despite issuing the request for proposals.
The University of New England in Biddeford currently holds the contract to run SNAP-Ed for the state. Vice President for Clinical Affairs Dora Anne Mills said UNE will apply to continue running the program.
The University of Maine Cooperative Extension also will apply for the contract, said Executive Director John Rebar. The cooperative extension ran the program for 16 years until 2012, when the state chose UNE for the job.
“We think it’s a very important program, and we’re looking forward to putting together the best proposal we can,” Rebar said.
During the 2016 program year, SNAP-Ed delivered more than 11,000 nutrition education classes to more than 34,000 children and adults, many of whom took multiple classes for a total of more than 173,000 interactions, according to the program’s annual report.
The offerings included cooking classes for adults, teens and children, as well as in-school offerings for kids that allowed them to taste-test new fruits and vegetables, create their own healthy snack combinations and learn about regular exercise.
In an independent survey of the program, teachers and parents indicated students were more willing to try new foods and more frequently asked for fruits and vegetables at home and as part of school lunch after participating in the nutrition classes.