The University of Minnesota is cutting about 40 percent of the staff in a federally funded program that teaches low-income Minnesotans about healthful eating and nutrition.

The program, known as SNAP-Ed (Supplemental Nutrition Education Program), will lose 67 of its 152 employees early next year as a result of federal budget cuts, the university announced Monday.

Until now, the program has sent nutrition educators to virtually every county in Minnesota to work in schools, food shelves and senior citizen centers, said Bev Durgan, the University's Extension dean, who oversees the program.

After the cutbacks, 45 educators will be left to cover the state's 87 counties.

"What it means is that we have [fewer] people to serve the needs of the state," Durgan said. "That will be our challenge."

The staff works with some 63,000 low-income people, at programs throughout the state, to teach them how to stretch their food budgets and make healthful choices, Durgan said. She noted that research shows the program saves $10 in long-term health care costs for every $1 spent on nutrition education.

In January, however, the federal government cut the SNAP grants nationwide by 28 percent, which cut the U program's budget from $8.7 million to $6.3 million, Durgan said. University officials tried to make up for the shortfall by reducing expenses, including supplies, travel, meetings and administration, she said. Then, in October, the federal grant was cut by another 10 percent.

"That's 38 percent of our budget; it's just hard to sustain," she said.

Under the changes announced Monday, the program will shed just over 40 percent of its positions, including supervisors and support staff.

The largest cuts will affect the 104 community nutrition educators, who will have to reapply for the 45 remaining positions, she said. Those who don't apply, or aren't invited to stay, will receive layoff notices as of mid-January, the university said.