Editor's note: This story is part of a series addressing the issue of food insecurity in Richland County. The series will continue throughout 2017 and feature interviews with those working to mitigate the problem and the obstacles they encounter.
MANSFIELD -- Gloria Taylor, 52, admits she struggles with impulse buying.
While doing her monthly grocery shopping, she struggles to refrain from purchasing items she wants and doesn't need, including her favorites: Pepsi and Oreo Thins.
"I'm not a good shopper," the Mansfielder said. "Making a list and stick to it. ... It's hard to do."
However, she's not opposed to learning how to swap bad habits for good ones, which is why she participated SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program)-Ed earlier this year.
Funded by the Food Nutrition Service, this free nutrition education and obesity prevention program is offered by The Ohio State University Extension.
SNAP-Ed seeks to alleviate food insecurity -- the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food -- by providing nutritional and active lifestyle education to low-income individuals. Classes are available through a partnership between the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services and OSU Extension.
Taylor participated in a six-week class called "Eat Smart. Live Strong. Learn How." Lessons included an overview of MyPlate, budget-friendly ways to eat nutritiously, how to identify whole grains, smart shopping tips and more.
Taylor was shown how to prepare healthy dishes and was pleasantly surprised by how good they tasted.
In the days and weeks that followed the class, she purchased ingredients to make nutritious meals but has since found it challenging to keep up the momentum and not give in to the temptation of impulse buying, she said.
Taylor goes grocery shopping once a month using her disability check and $15 worth of monthly SNAP benefits. Because she lacks transportation, she normally pays someone at West Park Senior Center (where she currently resides) for a ride and uses a motorized shopping cart to carry her groceries, as she suffers from multiple sclerosis.
In between shopping trips, she visits the nearby Salvation Army to supplement her home pantry. "It's always a help," she said.
Now that she's completed a SNAP-Ed course, she said she's better about saying no to second helpings.
"I think I'm more mindful that I don't need to do seconds," she said.
Taylor said she found the class helpful, especially lessons on nutrition.
"I wouldn't mind taking that class again," she said.
Hungry for information
SNAP benefits, formerly called food stamps, can be used to help low-income individuals buy food. They can be accessed with the Ohio Direction Card, which is similar to a debit card.
A person may qualify for SNAP benefits if his or her household's gross monthly income is at or under 130 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. These guidelines change yearly. Some households may qualify if they have incomes over the limit if someone in the household is elderly or disabled.
In most Ohio counties (including Richland County), SNAP recipients can take free classes to help them make healthier food choices, learn frugal shopping tips and choose physically active lifestyles. This program is called SNAP-Ed.
"The interest in SNAP Education has really grown because the audience is, for lack of a better word, 'hungry' for the information because they just don't know how to prepare foods," said Judy Villard-Overocker, Richland County director for OSU Extension.
SNAP-Ed educators and program assistants work in collaboration with local food pantries, senior centers, schools and other organizations to hold classes and workshops.
Teresa Sallee, SNAP-Ed program assistant, said her main objectives with the program are to promote and educate participants on budget-friendly, healthy eating and the importance of physical activity.
One of the many curricula offered by the SNAP-Ed program is Cooking Matters, which teaches low-income adults about healthy meal preparation and sensible shopping on a limited budget. OSU Extension is currently searching for local agencies/partners that can share half the Cooking Matters expenses with its sponsors.
"When I do a nutrition program one of the things I always try to teach people is that when you're going into a grocery store, don't go in hungry and try to shop the outer perimeter," Villard-Overocker said.
She also makes sure to discuss local farmers markets and produce suppliers, highlighting those that offer the SNAP Match program. "That way they can get double for their money, so really it's encouraging people," Villard-Overocker said.
Classes involve problem-solving and allow time for questions. Topics can range from food safety and preservation to eliminating food waste.
SNAP-Ed previously focused primarily on adults, but it now encompasses all age ages.
"We're finding that you need to make inroads with kids when they're young and then they can take that home and they learn that habit of better food selection," Villard-Overocker said.
The youth SNAP-Ed program teaches children how to make healthy food choices, read labels and get plenty of physical activity. Lessons are fun, interactive and educational.
Villard-Overocker visited Auburn Elementary School in Shelby and spoke to approximately 350 children about nutrition and physical activity. Her goal was to show them it's fun to learn about healthy foods and guide them on how to incorporate nutrient-rich food in meals.
"It was such a fun day and the kids had such a great time," she said.
In this analysis by Rob Moore, dated Sept. 4, 2016, he advocates for the expansion of nutrition education programs, saying they are "the most effective options available to reduce food insecurity in the state."
According to OSU Extension, more than one-third of SNAP-Ed participants in Ohio say they were more food secure after taking part in a SNAP-Ed program.
As a result of SNAP-Ed programming in Richland County,
- 62 percent of adults and/or teens and 100 percent of youth participants are using MyPlate to make healthy food choices
- 81 percent of adults and/or teens and 75 percent of youth participants are drinking water instead of sugar-sweetened drinks
- 87 percent of adults and/or teens and 100 percent of youth participants are physically active for at least 30 minutes most days of the week
- 75 percent of adults and/or teens and 67 percent of Cooking Matters participants are using nutrition fact labels to guide food choices
- 82 percent of adults and/or teens and 100 percent of Cooking Matters participants are planning meals ahead of time (data provided by OSU Extension)
During fiscal year 2017, SNAP-Ed reached 3,028 participants in the county through direct nutrition education programs. An additional 1,274 participants were reached through indirect programs, such as community events, newsletters and health fairs, according to OSU Extension.
Mansfield woman Doris King was planning her exit -- thinking her best bet would be acting like she had to go to the bathroom and then making a break for it -- and then she changed her mind.
She decided to stay in OSU Extension's class on healthy cooking that she was invited to by her no-show cousin.
"At first I was mad, but I'm so happy I came and stayed," she said. "I learned so much."
The class walked participants through MyPlate and where to get vital nutrients for a healthy diet. It culminated in a cooking demonstration, featuring food items sourced primarily from a local food pantry.
The tailgate-themed dishes included turkey taco salad, tuna fish wraps, sliced veggies, calico beans, deviled eggs and fruit parfaits.
King is accustomed to southern-style cooking.
"We use a lot of sugars, a lot of oil, a lot of grease, which is clogging up our arteries and we have high blood pressure," she said.
She began to change how she cooked about five years ago, opting for healthier ingredients.
"I'm not saying I'm fully transitioned because sometimes I do revert back to my old ways, like if I'm having family and friends over, they're used to that type of cooking," she said.
Thanks to the class, she walked away with some new tasty -- and healthy -- recipes.
"Oh my goodness, I can't wait to try them," she said.
Michelle Owens of Mansfield, who also attended the class, was jotting down grocery items, sharing how much she enjoyed the sweet red peppers.
She found the class very helpful and fun.
Similarly, Mansfield man Lamont Gray said the experience was eye-opening.
"I got a lot out of it (including some new meal ideas)," he said.