“Montana went from just handing out food stamps to educating people on nutrition. Many people seeking food stamps are in a crisis situation and can’t manage their income,” said Dennee. “Our program provides practical information and education to FSNE families and individuals on a limited budget, encouraging them to choose healthier foods.”
Now in 20 counties and on five reservations in Montana, the Food Stamp Nutrition Education program in 2007 reached out to over 3000 adults, who completed a series of lessons or attended sessions on improving food skills.
Success stories powerfully reflect the impact the program has made on the lives of participants. One client commented that for the first time, she used a menu sheet and grocery ads to plan meals and her son “is so happy to have such good food and meals.” She quit going to McDonalds.
A young mother of two small children reported, “Since taking the lessons, I can now make my food stamps last through the month. Now I cook more meals and buy less boxed meals. I feel that I am making healthy choices for myself and especially for my children.”
a second generation
In addition to the Food Stamp Nutrition Education program, Dennee proudly notes the impact of the other program, Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, the program she was originally hired to run. The program, which has been in existence for over 40 years and funded by the USDA, serves low-income families with children. Dennee says EFNEP is an empowering program in addition to providing nutritional information.
Participants in both programs tell Dennee, “For the first time, someone has helped us.” The impact has been so great for some participants that they have become nutrition assistants themselves and teach classes. For some, it is a calling, not a job.
Judy Bartelt from Great Falls credits Dennee with helping her “put her life back together.” Bartelt was coming out of a bad time in her life after a car accident left her severely injured and required two years of physical therapy. Judy was looking to get back in the work force. She saw an ad in the newspaper for a nutrition assistant and thought, “this is for me.” She credits Dennee for giving her a chance.
“Phyllis is a phenomenal person. She’s such a people builder. She’s also an amazing mentor and educator,” Bartelt said.
Bartelt, who has a bachelor’s in elementary education from the University of Wyoming and worked for eight years with men a pre-release prison program, worked as a nutrition assistant for 11 years before recently retiring to spend more time helping out with her grandchildren.
Phyllis Dennee presents nutrition information to nutrition assistants.
Over the years, many nutrition assistants have told Phyllis, “You have changed my life.” Not only do nutrition assistants help others make changes in their nutrition habits, they also have improved their own health. Bartelt said she personally benefited from the program. She lost 100 pounds. Dennee’s eyes sparkle when she tells about paraprofessional nutrition assistants who have become confident educators and have “made huge changes” in their own lives. As Bartelt said, “Phyllis makes us feel like real professionals.”
Dennee once said, “Nutrition assistants really live the Chinese proverb: ‘Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.’ In that vein, nutrition assistants are great Montana fishing guides.”
Dennee officially “retired” in July 2008 after serving the university and the state of Montana for 31 years. However, she’s not done yet. She has taken on a part time position as an internship and mentoring coordinator with MSU Extension. It’s the perfect job for someone who has had such an impact on thousands of lives.