University of Minnesota Extension laid off about 44 percent of its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education employees on Jan. 14 in response to diminishing funding.

Until now, University Extension has avoided layoffs in SNAP-Ed, which works in tandem with the government program formerly known as food stamps. The program educates low-income people about active, healthy lifestyles.

Before the cuts, 109 community nutrition educators worked with Minnesota’s 87 counties, with at least one part-time educator in almost every county. Now, some educators may have to cover as many as four counties.

University Extension Dean Beverly Durgan said the program relies almost entirely on its employees to meet the needs of the poor throughout the state.

“Doing this reorganization and thinking about employees was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do as dean, and I’ve been dean for eight years now,” she said.

A 28 percent cut to the federal American Taxpayer Relief Act in January 2013 and the lack of a farm bill have reduced the SNAP-Ed program’s stability.

During the past year, University Extension cut costs and exhausted all additional funding to avoid layoffs. The money has now run out, Durgan said, and it has no more room to save.

Some among the 67 of 152 employees who won’t be returning to their jobs had been members of SNAP-Ed since the program began.

The change won’t be drastic in urban areas such as in Hennepin County. Another source of federal funding — the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program — dictates that areas of higher population, particularly those of low-income mothers and children, receive more of the available money.

But less-populated areas of the state will see less education. “We’re not kidding ourselves, and we’re not promising that we are going to be able to do the same work,” Durgan said. “We have less money. We have less people.”

Instead of working one-on-one, educators will have to rely more on collaboration with food shelves and their volunteers, Durgan said.

Course evaluations indicate that the program has influenced healthier eating in low-income families, Durgan said. Participants in SNAP-Ed courses — 63,000 last year — said they increased their consumption of fruits and vegetables by more than one-third of a cup.

“I’m looking forward to new partnerships,” said Erin Ostrowski, a new SNAP regional educator.