Tasha Gerken is the nutrition educator and program coordinator at Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick for SNAP-Ed, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which teaches low-income Mainers how to make healthy meals on a small budget (using local foods whenever possible). In February, the LePage administration requested a waiver from the Trump administration to block low-income Mainers from buying sugar-sweetened drinks and candy with their SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) benefits. The administration included a second request, to divert funding for nutrition education to the Department of Education, which would likely put Gerken out of a job. We called her up to find out how she came to be a nutrition educator and what she values about the work she does – and learned a little something about gleaning and banana-peanut-butter-apple wraps in the process.

DEEP BACKGROUND: Gerken grew up in Massachusetts and New Hampshire but spent summers in Wells and went to the University of Southern Maine, where she studied art history. When she was casting around for what to do after college, she knew that she wanted to live in New York, at least for a while. “It was the art and museums that were the first draw.” Then there was the pull of Broadway. Not to be on stage, but to be in the audience. “I had grown up listening to all the soundtracks to musicals.” Her vision of New York dovetailed with the stuff of song lyrics: “It is a place where dreams come true.”

A BIGGER PURPOSE: Her father warned her that she needed to have a bigger purpose than just taking Manhattan if she was going to make the move. Gerken found that bigger purpose in her own history. She had discovered in adolescence that she had a number of food intolerances. “I was just sick all the time and I was losing weight and I didn’t know what to do to combat it.” She had allergies to gluten, dairy, soy and tomatoes. Finding solutions for herself shaped how she viewed food, vitamins and nutrition and ultimately led to her to New York University’s graduate program in clinical nutrition. She stayed seven years, studying and then working at a hospital where she ran outpatient nutrition programs. And yes, she visited as many museums and galleries and saw as much theater as she could.

HOMEWARD BOUND: Gerken returned to Maine in the summer of 2014. “It was time to come home to family and a place that I loved and a pace that I was wanting.” The SNAP educator job, which is administered through Mid Coast Hospital, “was immediately the right fit.” What’s an average day at the office like? When we spoke, Gerken was prepping for a “food challenge” class at Head Start in Bath the next day that would involve a mystery ingredient (a local white fish, to be determined when she got to the market). This would be the sixth and final class for this group of adult students and they’d be applying what they’ve learned, including the importance of lean proteins and a plate half full with fruits and vegetables. She brings all the needed materials (“essentially a whole kitchen”). Her goal is to make students feel empowered to try new things, sometimes even just the very basics. “A lot of people see cooking as sort of a luxury of time and money and resources.” That’s because they often have “other things in their life that are more pressing and more vital to keeping their lives going.” Like making the rent? Right. Her job, then, is to reveal how making healthy food choices at the market and in the kitchen pay off in the long run.

BY THE NUMBERS: Between October 2015 and September 2016, Gerken taught 270 classes, which are generally taught in a series. “You can’t change behavior with one encounter, so we see people repeatedly.” She had 787 pupils in that time. On top of that, she offers food samplings at food pantries or attends health fairs. She’s accomplished this on a part-time basis, working 30 hours a week as a SNAP-Ed educator (she works another 10 hours a week as a mentor to other educators). There are 44 educators around the state, and all told, there were 2,548 SNAP education classes taught in 2016. “That’s over 34,000 people that we had face-to-face contact with.”

BEST LESSON: Sometimes she’s teaching just parents, as with the white fish mystery session, sometimes children and sometimes whole families, depending on which local partner she’s working with. “That’s what I am most proud of Maine SNAP-Ed for; we are in communities all over the state, and each community is so different that we really rely on our community partners to help us.” Head Start is one of those community partners, as are public housing sites, food pantries and groups like Maine Farmland Trust. Gerken works with Merrymeeting Gleaners and local farms and farmers markets to connect hungry families to food that might otherwise go to waste. She also travels to schools that qualify, based on the proportion of students on free and reduced-lunch programs, to teach nutrition. Proud moment? “I had a seventh-grader come into my one of my classes and say, ‘Remember that wrap you taught us how to make?’ ” (Peanut butter, banana and apple in a whole wheat wrap.) The girl had made it for herself every day that week. “She was so excited about the fact that she knew how to make something that she enjoyed eating and that was made from the food that she had in her home.”

ABOUT THAT WAIVER REQUEST: The state’s request to ban SNAP spending on sugary beverages and candy (Gov. Paul LePage made the same request last year and was denied by the Obama administration) also for a waiver for Maine to redistribute U.S. Department of Agriculture grant funds used to fund nutrition (that is, Gerken’s SNAP-Ed program) “directly to food banks, schools and other community agencies so that these agencies can directly distribute healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables to needy families.” Maine DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew acknowledged in the letter that “nutrition education is crucial” but wrote “it should simply be conducted in school settings as part of school curricula and overseen by the Department of Education.” That would eliminate jobs like Gerken’s. Her initial response to Mayhew’s letter? “Shock.” Needless to say, she doesn’t want this program to go away. It’s not just her job that’s at stake. “We know this program is working to improve the lives of so many Mainers and has the potential to make even longer-term impacts if we can maintain the continuity and relationships we’ve built in each community. If we really look at the person who benefits most from these programs, they are doing the best they can. And we get to see that and it is so powerful.”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

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