Georgia consistently ranks “poorly in obesity and chronic disease statistics,” and a large segment of the population struggles to put food on their tables, says Jung Sun Lee, a University of Georgia foods and nutrition associate professor who leads a program aimed at combating these issues. Lee serves as principal investigator for UGA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed).
“We have a great need for this type of program in the state of Georgia, and we have a capacity to meet that need. Food insecurity, people having problems getting the type and amount of food they need, exists in this nation, but it’s hidden and not many people think it’s actually happening,” Lee said.
The UGA SNAP-Ed program works to reverse the trend of obesity and chronic disease through a combination of in-person and online nutrition education classes, lessons to help early childhood educators provide healthier environments for students, and the promotion of healthy nutrition and behaviors through social marketing.
UGA Cooperative Extension program assistants provide free classes to Georgia residents in communities across the state. This in-person education program was created in 2015 and built on the Food Talk curriculum, originally developed by UGA Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) staff. The program has since added elements, including classes offered at farmers markets and a university-themed series called “Food Talk: Better U.”
Direct education is offered to low-income Georgians through group classes that cover topics like healthy eating habits, fighting obesity and the importance of leading a physically active lifestyle. Participants learn how to make healthy choices when dining out, how to adapt traditional Southern recipes to reduce sodium and increase vegetable servings, and how to plan meals and save money when food shopping.
Recipes are prepared in class and samples are served. Participants also receive educational extenders, such as cutting boards, measuring cups or a water bottle. A certificate is awarded to participants who successfully complete a series of classes.
To help bring the program to more Georgians, UGA SNAP-Ed also includes an online learning resource called “Food eTalk.” Also adapted from the Food Talk curriculum, Food eTalk offers interactive, online nutrition education courses and videos accessible from any web-connected device.
“The great thing about Food eTalk is that people can use it anywhere, at any time,” said Sarah Stotz, a dietitian who was closely involved in Food eTalk’s development.
In January, Edda Cotto-Rivera, a UGA Extension nutrition and health educator with more than 25 years of experience, was named coordinator of UGA SNAP-Ed. Previously she was the Family and Consumer Sciences agent in DeKalb County. Cotto-Rivera has worked to educate families about nutrition, healthy eating, cancer prevention, diabetes management, healthy homes and brain development, and she has done so in English and Spanish.
“As a young college student in Puerto Rico, I worked with an Extension agent teaching nutrition to families living in a rural area in the center of the island. I can say that my family has long ties to Extension, since my mom was a volunteer for the home economics club in my hometown,” she said. “Extension provides a unique opportunity to reach out to diverse audiences with research-based education. I hope my experience as a county Extension agent will help SNAP-Ed at UGA continue to thrive and serve our target audiences in the areas of nutrition, physical activity and obesity prevention.”
Last year, more than 1,500 low-income participants enrolled in face-to-face Food Talk programs and hundreds enrolled in online courses. Those interested in Food Talk group classes offered in Bartow, Clarke, Clayton, Coffee, DeKalb, Fulton and Gilmer counties should contact their local UGA Extension office. Visit the website at www.foodtalk.org to receive information about classes or how to enroll in the e-learning program.
Food Talk is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). To learn more about SNAP in Georgia or to apply for benefits, visit www.dfcs.dhs.georgia.gov/food-stamps or call 1-800-436-7442.
(Sharon Dowdy is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)
(Austin Childers coordinates UGA SNAP-Ed statewide social marketing efforts.)