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“Start Em Young!”: Dr. Virginia Stage’s Mission for Healthy Eating

As an advocate for nutrition, healthy eating, and healthy lifestyle choices, Virginia Stage combines her passion and career to positively influence young people (and families) in developing healthy lifestyle behaviors early in life. Her current work, which explores the intersection of food/nutrition, health, and education among low-resource children in early childhood settings, began at NC State as a doctoral student in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences (FBNS).  Stage is now an Assistant Professor and Nutrition Education & Behavior Specialist within the Department of Agriculture and Human Sciences (AHS) at NC State. 

Prior to her career at NC State, Stage was an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition Science at East Carolina University (ECU) in Greenville, NC for over 10 years. At ECU, she developed and evaluated school-based interventions focused on improving children’s dietary intake and academic achievement, while also teaching courses in pediatric nutrition, research methods, and nutrition science.  She also mentored undergraduate and graduate students in community-based research projects.

In her work, Stage is committed to promoting healthy lifestyles while creating learning environments for early childhood teachers, young children (3-5 years), and families. Stage’s research broadly focuses on developing interventions in early childhood settings that support the development of healthy food preferences among children from families with limited resources. She does this by training early childhood teachers, families, and communities in evidence-based strategies for improving children’s dietary quality through early education, exposure, and access to healthy foods. As Stage puts it, “It takes a village to raise children; the same is true for supporting the development of healthy food preferences.” Stage also views extension professionals as critical partners for supporting teachers and families in the promotion of positive health behaviors for young children.

Stage realized the difficulty of providing educational outreach and resources to multiple Head Start programs early in her career as an assistant professor. Knowing the value of NC State Extension, she partnered with NC State’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Program (EFNEP). Together, they have successfully created healthy eating and physical activity programming for Head Start teachers and families!

In 2015, a local Head Start Nutrition Coordinator approached Stage for help in identifying sustainable, hands-on educational strategies that could improve healthy eating and physical activity behaviors among her teachers. Recognizing the critical value of EFNEP, Stage reached out to the director at the time, Lorelei Jones. Together, their team adapted and pilot-tested a six-lesson series focused on the nutrition and physical activities needs of Head Start teachers. For the past five+ years, Stage has actively collaborated with EFNEP to train educators on how to partner with and deliver programming in the Head Start setting.  

The program is still being delivered across the state today. So far, Stage and her team have conducted six training workshops for EFNEP educators, a teaching guide, $6,500 in funding, two peer-reviewed manuscripts, and two national presentations. Stage continues to support EFNEP Educators as they have formed collaborations with 12 Head Start programs in 37 different counties across NC, to provide education for teachers and families.

Stage also leads a diverse team of multidisciplinary researchers from ECU, NC State, NC A&T, and UNC Greensboro. Along with university researchers, she has developed an innovative intervention designed to train Head Start teachers on how to implement evidence-based strategies focused on simultaneously improving dietary quality, cognition, and language skills among low-resource children (3-5 years). The five-year project, More PEAS (Preschool Education in Applied Sciences) Please!, was funded in 2019 through a $1.3 million National Institutes of Health Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA). The program is currently undergoing revision after being piloted in 2021-2022 with 50+ teachers and 500 children across five Head Start centers in Eastern NC. They plan to partner with Telamon’s Head Start program, which serves Wake, Sampson, Chatham, and Caswell counties, to implement and evaluate program outcomes in 2023-2024.  Stage believes that to improve health outcomes of children, the adults (teachers and families), school, and home environments must be influenced simultaneously. 

In the coming years, her team hopes to obtain funding for a family-focused extended program of More PEAS Please! They aim to support families through culturally relevant stories as they encourage healthy eating and prepare children for kindergarten. Simultaneously, they plan to align their work with existing Farm to Early Care and Education initiatives and other extension-based preschool programming. Stage’s team recognizes that teachers are critical partners, but families will be with children beyond the preschool classroom. As the Nutrition Education and Behavior Specialist, Stage is in the perfect position to pursue her career goals- “What better place to do this work than in a department focused on the health of children and families!”