SNAP-Ed Pays Workers So Little, Some Are Eligible for Food Benefits – Iowa Public Radio | Directory Mayhem

Del Jacobs likes almost everything about her job. As a SNAP-Ed community worker in Illinois, she enjoys meeting the regulars at the local pantry and teaching them healthy eating on a budget. She enjoys working with children, especially since she has no children of her own.

What she doesn’t like about her job is the pay, which after six years in the same position was only $13.79 an hour. That wage increased by just $1 an hour over six years.

“It’s not enough,” she said.

Dana Cronin

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Harvest public media

Del Jacobs has been a SNAP-Ed community worker in Illinois for six years. Her wages are so low that she had to find another job to make ends meet.

Jacobs is one of thousands of SNAP-Ed workers in the Midwest earning low wages. An investigation by Harvest Public Media and the Midwest Newsroom found that the SNAP-Ed program, which aims to educate those with diet insecurity about healthy eating on a budget, pays its employees poorly — so poorly that they are often food insecure themselves are affected or have a part-time job.

SNAP-Ed is the education arm of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps). It operates in all 50 states and has been around since 30 yearsalthough the basis for the program was laid in Food Stamp Act of 1977 and it has undergone many changes since then. The goal of the program has always been to educate low-income communities on how to eat healthily on a budget.

SNAP-Ed is funded by the US Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) and operated by Land Grant University Extension Offices in most states. Our investigation revealed tension between the state coordinators of the SNAP-Ed program and the USDA, where finger-pointing between the two agencies leads to a lack of accountability for low wages.

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Dana Cronin

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Harvest public media

To reach their target audience, SNAP-Ed associates put up posters at farmers markets, visit pantries and teach community cooking classes to low-income residents.

Jacobs, for example, has qualified for SNAP benefits. And to make ends meet, she took on a second job as a cleaner, making $25 an hour — nearly double what the University of Illinois pays her.

“Isn’t that sad that I get paid more for cleaning a house than I do for the actual job?” she said.

Low pay = high turnover

There is no typical working day for Jacobs.

As a SNAP-Ed community worker, she might one day teach a class on cooking with pantry staples and the next day at the local farmer’s market, teach SNAP recipients how to use their benefits to create healthy, local foods to buy . The position is technically entry-level, but Jacobs has many responsibilities, including teaching ten different types of nutrition classes for all ages and managing relationships with local food supplies and non-profit organizations. She even has a university-issued credit card.

Most SNAP-Ed positions require approximately five months of on-the-job training. And yet, according to our research, until recently the average wage for SNAP-Ed workers in the Midwest was only $13.11 an hour.

Jacobs said those low wages resulted in high turnover rates within Illinois’ SNAP-Ed program.

“What has struck me in the six years that I have been working is that we hire everyone early in the year, they go through five months of training, they come into the community, they realize how much work they can do for so little wages and they quit,” she said.

That hurts the effectiveness of the program, Jacobs said. Because when a SNAP-Ed employee leaves, it can be difficult to replace them.

“(With) a fair wage, we would have a better impact on the community,” she said.

Jennifer McCaffrey, who directs Illinois’ SNAP-Ed program, hasn’t missed the higher-than-average turnover rate. But she attributes it to employees moving on to better options.

“It’s the nature of the role,” she says. “Because we offer so many training and development opportunities that people take advantage of it and then move on to a higher-paying position.”

But high turnover is also a problem in other states, including Missouri, where many SNAP-Ed employees have left the company in recent years.

“We tried exit talks and some mentioned salaries,” said Jo Britt-Rankin, University of Missouri SNAP-Ed coordinator.

A movement to raise wages

According to several interviews with program directors, high turnover was a key reason for increasing wages for SNAP-Ed staff. Of the five states surveyed (Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma), each one has increased wages for their employees in the last three months. (Nebraska has failed to respond to multiple emails and phone calls for interviews, and has not provided records in time for the publication of this article.)

In July, Missouri raised its base rate to $17 an hour from $13.57 an hour. Program director Britt-Rankin says she worked with the university’s human resources department to reclassify staff to bring them into the new pay grade.

“We asked them to help us provide a title and salary structure that more accurately reflects what they do,” she said.

She says the increased cost of living – including rising inflation rates – has also contributed to the wage increase.

Some workers pushed for wage increases in negotiations with the unions. For example, SNAP-Ed workers in Illinois are represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). In a process that lasted months, union representatives – including Del Jacobs – negotiated the new contract. According to Jacobs, one of the biggest points of contention with the University of Illinois was the wage increases.

Speaking on behalf of the negotiating team, a U of I spokesman said in an email statement that there were no specific sticking points, but that “some contracts are taking longer than others and the pandemic has significantly delayed negotiations.” ”

In Oklahoma, SNAP-Ed employees received a pay rise from a base salary of $10 an hour to $12 an hour. Despite the increase, they’re still the lowest SNAP-Ed earners across the region.

Oklahoma’s SNAP-Ed coordinator, Candace Gabel, knows this. She’s been in her current role for four years, all the while struggling to raise pay for her employees. While she is pleased with the recent wage increase, she said it’s still not enough to attract and retain workers.

“You can’t hire someone because they’re so low,” she said. “Because you can work at McDonald’s in Tulsa and make $15 an hour if you flip hamburgers, right?”

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“How will we achieve our goals?”

Oklahoma residents are among the most food insecure countries. That makes the state’s SNAP-Ed program especially critical, Gabel said. One of their primary goals is for the program to help reduce Oklahoma’s obesity rate — which is among the highest in the country. But that may not be achievable if it can’t pay its employees enough to keep them on the job.

“If we don’t have enough people to reach the population, how are we going to achieve our goals?” she said.

But to increase the wages of her employees, Gabel would have to cut some of her vacancies — further draining her program.

“It’s a catch 22,” she said.

To escape Catch-22, Gabel said she needed a larger operating budget. In other words, she needs more money from the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, which funds the program.

The USDA declined a confidential interview on the subject. A spokesman for the agency sent a statement stressing that it is up to each state to set employees’ salaries.

“States determine reasonable wages based on work performed, location, number of hours worked and other criteria,” the spokesman wrote.

The only salary guidelines provided by the agency are set out in the SNAP-Ed plan guide, which is the blueprint for states implementing SNAP-Ed: “All personnel wages, salaries, and benefits must be calculated on a reasonable hourly basis commensurate with the duties performed, or the federal minimum hourly rate established by the U.S. Department of Labor. ” The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. It has not increased since 2009.

But the USDA uses a formula to control how much money goes to each state. The formula was originally created in the Healthy Hunger Free Children Act 2010 and is confirmed in the Farm Bill. It allocates a certain amount of money to SNAP-Ed based on past allocations plus the percentage of SNAP recipients in each state.

Missouri program director Jo Britt-Rankin said when this formula went into effect, some states lost a lot of funds. Luckily, she said, Missouri wasn’t one of them.

“We’ve stayed pretty consistent,” she said. “We were grateful for that.”

The Farm Bill, which is normally renewed every five years, is due to be updated next year. The content of this 2023 bill is currently being debated, and Britt-Rankin is fairly certain the SNAP-Ed allocation formula will be part of the conversation.

“I’ve been on several Farm Bills now,” she said. “(SNAP-Ed is) always a talking point.”

A rewritten SNAP-Ed allocation formula could mean more money for workers like Del Jacobs. Along with other SNAP-Ed employees in the area, Jacobs finally got a raise earlier this year. It was her first significant raise in more than six years on the job. She now makes $16.51 an hour.

But Jacobs said she will not stop fighting for even higher wages.

“Now that we’re not getting poverty wages, I want to work to get us a living wage,” she said.

Follow Dana on Twitter @DanaHCronin.

Daniel Wheaton of the Midwest Newsroom contributed to this report.

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM.

This project is part of a collaboration with NPR’s Midwest newsrooma partnership between NPR and member stations to provide investigative journalism and in-depth reporting focused on Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.

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