By Nick Tabor, New Era Senior Staff Writer
The biggest program of Pennyrile Allied Community Services, a nutrition education service that runs on $5.6 million of federal funding each year, will go to the oversight of the state on Oct. 1.
County health departments all over Kentucky will administer it. The state says this will help it reach more people and use the money more effectively.
However, it will also put 75 PACS employees across the state out of jobs, including 25 in the Pennyrile region.
Each health department will decide whether to hire more employees to handle the new responsibilities.
The program aims to help people who receive food stamps live healthier lifestyles by eating more nutritious food and exercising. Fran Hawkins, manager of the nutrition branch of Kentucky’s Department for Public Health, said it will be a natural extension of services county health departments already provide.
The Christian County Health Department is still awaiting instructions from the state.
Meanwhile, as PACS employees box up their belongings and search for new employment, it seems to them the state has wrested away a job they performed with excellence — as though it’s trying to fix something that’s not broken.
And it reminds all PACS employees the funding for their jobs could get cut off at the end of any given fiscal year, said Director Judy Peterson.
Meme Perdue, an employee of Pennyrile Allied Community Services, started the program 10 years ago on an invitation from the state. She hoped to help the poor eat nutritiously.
“We wanted to teach people how to stretch their food stamps further,” she said.
Kentucky’s rates of poverty and obesity both ranked among the country’s highest, Perdue noticed. It perplexed her; shouldn’t the poor be underfed, not overfed?
When she started teaching workshops, she found out what her target audience was eating: food that was cheap, easy to prepare and high in fat and sodium. She realized hunger and obesity epidemics weren’t dichotomous.
“They’re one and the same,” she said.
Its curriculum team creates age-appropriate lessons for the youngest Kentuckians through the oldest. Most of the lessons urged eating five fruits and vegetables a day.
In workshops, educators brought vegetables and showed participants how to cook them in recipes, and they explained how to read nutrition labels.
Perdue and the program’s other employee started teaching in schools all over the Pennyrile in which half or more of the students received subsidized meals. For every hour they spent teaching, the federal government contributed funding equal to the cost of the teachers’ time.
They also went into housing projects and adult education classes.
“Anywhere folks were trying to stretch out that dollar and live within their means,” she said.
The second year they expanded into Owensboro and Bowling Green. In 2007, they extended the program into all 120 counties, relying on new staff who worked out of social services offices.
Signs of progress
In Rowan County, a fourth-grade boy once approached a nutrition educator at Wal-Mart. He said that since he sat through a nutrition lesson, he had ceased drinking six to eight Red Bulls a day and lost about 40 pounds.
In Hopkins County, two women on food stamps invited their nutrition educators over for a home-cooked meal.
Combined with participant surveys, responses like these showed staff how their lessons could change people’s lifestyles, Perdue said.
“It really can have a colossal impact,” she said.
Between 2006 and 2012, educators reached more than 3.5 million people in 139,700 presentations, according to a report Peterson provided. These were unduplicated audiences.
In 2009, the program did enough work to get a federal funding match of $5.6 million. It has received the same dollar amount each year since.
Besides salaries, the money paid for furniture and teaching materials, including many that educators gave away: workbooks, pencils, measuring cups.
This summer they spent $350,000 on new materials that correspond to the new USDA “MyPlate,” which is replacing the food pyramid.
But in July, program leaders received a devastating email from the state. It said their contract was ending. As of Oct. 1, they would no longer get a dime to teach workshops. It didn’t explain why.
About two weeks later, Kentucky’s Department of Public Health announced it was receiving $6 million a year in federal funds to teach food stamps recipients about nutrition.
The state, which had custody of the federal grant, was redirecting it.
Beth Fisher, a cabinet spokeswoman, emailed the New Era an official explanation from the Department for Community Based Services.
“A partnership between the Department for Community Based Services and the Department for Public Health allows funding streams to be combined that will serve to enhance current services and strengthen nutrition education messages while avoiding duplication of efforts,” the statement reads.
It says the switch will also help reach new audiences.
Health departments already provide one-on-one education on nutrition, Hawkins said. They will adopt their curriculums for low-income audiences and start sending educators into schools and other venues.
Dr. Steve Davis, acting commissioner of the Department for Public Health, also made a statement about it this summer.
“With a presence in all 120 counties, our local health departments are the largest health delivery system in the Commonwealth and are uniquely qualified to provide proper nutrition education to Kentucky students,” Davis said. “… Our local health departments have nutritionists, health educators and nurses on staff to help educate students about making choices that will provide them with the foundation for a healthier life.”
Mark Pyle, director of the Christian County Health Department, said he expects to learn on Sept. 19 how much funding his department will get for food stamps education. Afterward his leadership team will decide whether it needs to hire new employees.
Pyle has been trying for months to get information, he said.
Most of the program’s 75 employees have bachelor’s degrees in public health, business, education, nutrition or dietetics, Perdue said. A few have found jobs, particularly in Lexington, but most are still looking.
“I’m sure, come Oct. 1, that Kentucky’s unemployment rate is going to go up,” she said.
She hoped county health departments would hire these people as nutrition educators, but so far no one seems to know how many jobs will open up.
Employees all over the state have boxed up their materials. This includes projectors and dozens of computers. Because their office leases are expiring, PACS Director Judy Peterson is trying to get the state to pick up all these boxes.
Many programs at PADD depend on grants that come up for yearly renewal, Peterson said. The nutrition program’s demise was a wake-up call for everyone.
“It’s brought reality to all of our staff,” she said.
Perdue herself will work for another program PACS administers.
“It’s kind of surreal,” she said. “I have three children. I felt like this program was my fourth.”