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SNAP: Raise Awareness and Reduce Stigma with a Grocery Simulation

When Georgette Howell, RD, uncovered her students’ disconnect with food-assistance programs, she integrated eye-opening exercises into her instruction.

Educator

Georgette Howell, RD

Associate Professor of Exercise Science and Wellness, Montgomery County Community College, in Pottstown, PA

MS in Nutrition and Education, RD, BS in History

Students who sign up for the Basic Nutrition course at Montgomery County Community College in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, certainly expect to learn the ins and outs of healthy eating. If their professor is Georgette Howell, RD, they will also learn that healthy eating is a privilege—and a serious challenge for many Americans.

For Howell, this is not just about preparing students to help future clients who face food insecurity. It is also personal. When Howell was a college freshman, a classmate suggested she might qualify for what was then called “food stamps”—the predecessor of today’s federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). “I was incredibly grateful,” says Howell. “I had never thought about using government assistance, so my reaction was the opposite of what you might imagine. I signed up immediately! As a first-generation college student on my own, on a work-study [program] in a new place, it made a huge difference.”

As a direct result, Howell’s curriculum today is not standard fare. In addition to including the tenets of healthful eating, it also is designed to educate students about SNAP and who qualifies. “In our area in Pennsylvania, one in eight people is food insecure,” she says. “We can’t talk about basic nutrition without talking about hunger and the very real problem of food insecurity in Pennsylvania and right here at the college.” Perhaps most important, she wants to dispel the stigma that may keep people from seeking out assistance.

SNAP has its limitations and detractors, admits Howell, but it is feeding an enormous part of the US population, particularly women, children, and the working poor. As with any government program, education is crucial, she says. But even more important for students is the exercise of walking in the shoes of those whom they may have as clients—or the willingness to seek out these resources if they qualify for the program themselves.

Context

“The impact of good nutrition on one’s current and future health cannot be overstated. Considering the fact that certain chronic diseases can be prevented or alleviated with diet, it’s essential that students understand how their choices can determine their future health. On the flip side, food is fun and a way to express creativity and enjoy the company of others. My hope is that students will be open to exploring new foods and making a few small changes after taking this class, to discover the many benefits of eating well.”

— Georgette Howell, RD

Course: ESW 206 Basic Nutrition

Course description: This course will introduce students to the study of nutrition. It will incorporate fundamental scientific principles enabling students to develop their own nutritional lifestyle compatible with these principles. The course will provide an understanding of nutrients, their function in the body, deficiency diseases, body composition, nutrition and physical activity, nutrition through the life span, food faddism, consumer issues, and an evaluation of diets. The course will encourage the intelligent application of information so to enable the students to succeed in implementing good nutrition in their own lives.

See resources shared by Georgette Howell, RD

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An overview of Howell’s SNAP assignment

At the beginning of the course, Howell spends a few weeks giving students an overview of the basics of the six essential nutrients: carbohydrates, fats, protein, vitamins, minerals, and water. She stresses the importance of obtaining these nutrients through food in order to create nutrient-dense meals. Approximately halfway through the course, she introduces the class to the SNAP program and the assistance it provides. Plenty of materials on SNAP are available on the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service SNAP website page, including state-specific information, information on eligibility and applications, what SNAP can be used to buy, and more.

Then Howell assigns each student/group an imaginary client—“Grace,” a 34-year-old female—and has them fire up the computers in the lab. Students “shop” online for Grace, using a food-tracking software called NutritionCalc Plus from McGraw-Hill (though “any food tracker will do,” notes Howell). The software generates reports that are used to assess the various nutrient requirements for the assignment. Ultimately, the students are able to create a menu that shows both dietary information and pricing.

Explain the grocery-shopping goals

Howell tasks the students with creating a seven-day menu plan for their client that includes a daily breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack. They then attempt to create a grocery list of the foods needed to create the meals they selected, while meeting at least 80% of the nutrition goals they have learned and staying within $2 of their SNAP budget. Howell’s students use the Low-Cost USDA Cost of Food plan, which generally ranges from $46 to $48 per week. “Although SNAP funds are distributed monthly, the website also provides a weekly breakdown,” says Howell. “That is what we use.” Costs vary month to month, she says, but not by very much.

In beginning their online “shopping,” students are told that the client already has some foods in her cabinet, including spices, flour, oil, sugar, coffee, and tea. But, other than that, the foods they “purchase” must be sufficient to make the meals and snacks they are proposing.

To keep track of their progress, they use a spreadsheet to plug in each grocery item’s name, category (dairy, fruits, grains, protein, vegetables), quantity, unit size, and unit price. Howell gives them class time over three to four sessions for this project, and the students often build strong working groups. “They are in groups in Blackboard and have the ability to connect via email and create their own discussion boards,” she explains. “Students often exchange phone numbers and some have even met outside class.”

Gently guide them as they learn

It is hard to predict what students do and do not know when it comes to the practicalities of shopping and eating well for a week, says Howell. And that is what makes this such a brilliant exercise. As students simulate the process, they make their share of mistakes—which is where the real-world learning and application begin.

“One young man had no sense of portion sizes—he confused dry and cooked measurements of rice,” says Howell. “Others have never measured out a pound of any vegetable. And I love listening to students debating the practicality of purchasing mustard versus mayonnaise as a condiment.” Then comes the additional layer of checking their menu against the dietary guidelines and their budget: How much protein is too much? Can I afford this? What are the most affordable and nutritious options for this person? Is organic necessary? Are canned vegetables OK, or do they have to be fresh?

Take the show on the (virtual) road

Howell’s students must then repeat the same exercise—virtually—at a local grocery, filling their online cart with real (measured and weighed) amounts of fresh and packaged foods. “That’s when they look at their menu and realize, ‘I had planned to have them eat this or that vegetable, but I don’t have any money left. What do I have to take out of my cart in order to afford this?’” says Howell. Just as their client would have to, the students must make substitutions on the fly, while attempting to maintain the healthfulness of the overall meal plan.

When they have finished, each student must answer questions such as: Where did you shop? Is this store accessible by public transportation? What is the food donation policy of this food store/chain?

Weave in social policy research

Throughout the active learning projects, Howell provides a fair amount of social policy research. To encourage students to dig deeper into the nuts and bolts of SNAP, she presents them with a series of questions that she hopes will convey the enormity and urgency of the food problem nationally. After they graduate, Howell hopes they will broadcast that message to the public. (In fact, in a previous version of the assignment, Howell required students to research their local politicians and write letters to them in support of making SNAP funding a priority. During midterm elections last year, students were encouraged to vote and also to seek out which legislators support SNAP funding.)

Below is a sample of the questions Howell poses to students for research into SNAP, covering the social, political, and basic nutrition pieces of the puzzle.

Lesson: Howell’s Q&A on the pros and cons of SNAP

Instructions: Divide the class into groups of three. Each member of the group takes one set of three different questions, such as those below. Each question requires an answer of 300 words, for a total of 900 words for each section, and must be documented in APA format with in-text citations. (Students can earn extra credit by adding “meaningful media in the form of links, graphics, charts, videos, or animations.”) Each student submits the completed Q&A set onto a shared platform; Howell uses OneDrive, but a Wiki page, a Google Docs document, or another similar format would serve the purpose.

Here are three of Howell’s actual queries, plus sample answers (following her rubric):

Q: Discuss what foods are eligible for purchase on SNAP. Why aren’t SNAP-eligible purchases restricted to “healthy” foods?

A: Under the SNAP program, the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 (the Act) defines eligible food for consumption by SNAP households as any food or food product for home consumption and also includes seeds and plants that produce food (Fns.usda.gov, 2018). Under these guidelines, there are no restrictions on non-nutritious, high-caloric junk food. Soda, snacks, even ice cream are eligible food items.

Q: Discuss SNAP’s positive impact, including on participants’ health, food insecurity, and the economy.

A: SNAP has been called the cornerstone of the nation’s nutrition safety net and is one of the most important programs in place to prevent hunger and food insecurity in the United States (Snaptohealth.org, 2018). SNAP has provided food for families, preventing children from going hungry. Studies have shown that the percentage of households in which children were food insecure decreased by 8.6 percentage points in the cross-sectional sample (Snaptohealth.org, 2018). SNAP benefits also have a ripple effect:

  • It has impacted the economy. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, each $1 billion of retail generated by SNAP creates $340 million in farm production, $110 million in farm value-added, and 3,300 farm jobs.
  • It is helping lead to careers and financial independence. SNAP has partnered with FNS for a program called FNS Employment and Training (E&T). This provides participants with connections that can help them create and lead better lives. Individuals who receive nutrition assistance benefits qualify for many federal and state employment and training programs that help them obtain and retain employment.
  • SNAP also offers SNAP-Ed. This is an evidence-based program that helps people lead healthier lives by teaching people using or eligible for SNAP about good nutrition and how to make their food dollars stretch further. It also helps show participants how to become more physically active.
Q: Research the Women, Infants and Children program (WIC). Discuss changes in the WIC Food Packages. Describe the rationale for instituting these changes.

A: WIC’s purpose is to provide healthy, nourishing food to low-income women who are pregnant, as well as mothers of newborns, infants, and children up to age 5, through a short-term supplemental program. In 2007, interim guidelines were established to align WIC food packages with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and infant feeding practice guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The revisions were finalized in March 2014. For instance, yogurt was added as a partial substitute for milk, and WIC added more whole grain and fish options for women and children, as well as additional fruits and vegetables for children (Fns.usda.gov, 2018). Dollar amounts on vouchers for qualified items were also increased to help participants purchase more fruits and vegetables.

Outcomes

In addition to the work already described, each student also submits an individual, personal reflection directly to Howell. “The comment I see most is that students are grateful for what they have,” she says. “They realize how fortunate they are to have food available whenever they want it and that going hungry is not something they ever have to think about. They don’t understand how hunger can exist in America where we have so much food and yet waste so much.”

As a result of this project, some of Howell’s students have begun volunteering at food banks and soup kitchens, donating money, and bringing nonperishable items to the campus food pantry. “I hear students speak to their newly acquired empathy for how a person’s life can change in an instant, and they find themselves in need of assistance. Most students were not even aware of these programs and vowed to share what they have learned with people they believe may be in need.”

Finally, Howell also has students who have privately shared with her, in their personal reflections, their past or current participation in SNAP—some noting that, though the funding helped, they still ran out of money and food before the end of the month. “Others spoke to the stigma and rudeness they sometimes encountered at the supermarket, and the shame they felt,” she says. They are, she notes, “grateful for an assignment that provides a way for people to learn the facts rather than rely on myths about the program and the people who participate in it.”

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