Why SNAP-Ed Curriculum Must Empower its Participants to Cook

By Margaret Turvey 

The United States is currently experiencing high rates of food insecurity and obesity. This mounting health crisis underscores the importance of government-funded nutrition programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and SNAP-Ed, for improving the health of low-income Americans.

snap ed curriculum

While the programs as they exist now are far from perfect, it is crucial that they be improved upon, rather than eliminated or cut further. In order to improve participants’ culinary self-efficacy, SNAP-Ed curriculum needs to offer realistic solutions to the barriers preventing its participants from cooking.

UVM researchers have developed a new curriculum designed to promote food agency, thereby providing some of those solutions. Integrating this curriculum into SNAP-Ed would yield more successful outcomes.

SNAP participants currently receive $1.41 per meal. Cooking at home is often presented as the answer to this paltry funding; SNAP-Ed is offered to teach participants strategies to “stretch their food budget.”

However, economic hardship is just one aspect of food insecurity. While SNAP-Ed does incorporate an additional dimension by addressing nutritional knowledge, it still falls short by failing to account for its students’ particular constraints such as limited time, space, and tools. If home cooking is expected to solve America’s health crisis, SNAP-Ed curriculum must empower its participants to cook.

Individuals with high levels of food agency are comfortable in the kitchen and have adequate time and resources to cook. Conversely, food agency is inhibited not only by deficient culinary skills but also by structural obstacles. These obstacles could include inadequate supplies or kitchen space or a lack of time to cook. Food agency curriculum is designed to account for these challenges in its culinary lessons. SNAP-Ed would better equip its participants for the daily rigors of home cooking if it integrated concepts intended to improve individuals’ food agency.

One of the most fundamental tenets of SNAP-Ed, as it exists now, is repeated exposure to fresh produce, as in lessons always end with a healthy snack. However, exposure alone will not teach self-efficacy in the kitchen. For example, sampling a fresh salad does not teach you how to make it. Still, highlighting the sensorial effect that fresh produce has on a meal may serve to motivate increased consumption of healthy foods. The food agency curriculum emphasizes analysis of the sensorial effects of food. Families may be more tempted to experiment with new recipes at home if SNAP-Ed classes emphasized savoring food.

Another facet of the food agency curriculum that could be incorporated into SNAP-Ed is the establishment of a “game plan” for the cooking process, or a mise en place. Time constraints introduce an additional barrier to healthy food access for many families. The formal planning process dictated by mise en place may be impractical for busy parents, but a basic outline of meals, cooking processes, and weekly food consumption can help consumers spend their time and money wisely.

With numerous government programs on the chopping block, it could be tempting to point out SNAP’s inadequacies. Instead of eliminating or reducing funding to SNAP, however, we should augment the current model to improve its outcomes. Understanding food agency gives us the tools to do so.

-Margaret Turvey is a UVM dietetics student interested in food access and community nutrition.


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