As unemployment surged in North Carolina this spring during the COVID-19 pandemic, so did the demand for food from food banks, food pantries and other emergency sources. Two NC State Extension programs collaborated across the state to make sure that people receiving the food had the information they needed to make safe and healthy meals.
One result: 264 emergency food distribution sites – including food pantries, schools and churches – were able to tuck 102,000 nutrition card decks into boxes and bags of food for people in need. The card decks contained 12 recipes and nutritional information for healthy main courses, such as ratatouille and Tuscan bean soup, plus side dishes like sweet potato pancakes, apple-glazed stir fry and home fries.
The decks also included information on preparing and storing fruits and vegetables; on food safety; and how to connect with the programs responsible for creating them: Steps to Health and the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP).
Steps to Health, NC State’s SNAP-Education program, serves those eligible for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. EFNEP is a federal and local partnership providing nutrition education programs for families and school-aged youth with low incomes. NC State collaborates with North Carolina A&T State University to carry out the program in North Carolina.
Both programs work to help their participants make healthy choices within a limited budget and choose physically active lifestyles.
Funding for the project came from the NC Family & Consumer Sciences and Extension & Community Association Foundation, the Extension’s local foods program team, SNAP-Ed and EFNEP.
Three members of NC State’s Department of Agricultural and Human Sciences – Extension Specialist and Associate Professor Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, State EFNEP Coordinator Lorelei Jones and Steps to Health Program Coordinator Jayne McBurney — described the project, its importance and other steps the programs are taking in response to COVID-19.
What spurred this project?
Haynes-Maslow: Before COVID-19 hit our state, one in seven children in North Carolina were food insecure (meaning they lacked consistent access to enough food for a healthy life). As Extension professionals, we knew that families who were already struggling were just going to plunge deeper into uncertain times.
We knew that families who were already struggling were just going to plunge deeper into uncertain times.
So many county family and consumer sciences agents and nutrition educators were asking, ‘What can we do? How can we help our community?’ It was just immediate.
Right away, we started conversations to determine how we could serve our audiences even if we couldn’t provide direct nutrition education.
We decided to bring the programs to them, and one way we did that was with the recipe card decks. Extension’s Local Foods Program team provided resources, including recipes they’d used from another state. (While COVID-19 isn’t a foodborne illness), a lot of questions were being asked about food safety, so we worked with Extension’s food safety team and they provided information on proper handwashing guidelines and on cleaning and disinfecting surfaces.
Why was it so important to provide people with information on preparing healthy, safe meals during this crisis?
Haynes-Maslow: Food is not just about nutrition. It’s about making memories. It’s about ensuring that maybe there’s some normalcy in this very odd, weird world that we’re living in right now. Sitting down and eating dinner or having a meal together is one activity that keeps some sanity in all this. Food is important in so many ways, but in this time of unknowns, if you can just go back to something that seems to resemble what came before COVID-19, that can help out mentally and it can help out physically.
As people become successful in providing healthy meals for their family, they become successful in other areas of their life as well.
Jones: Providing food for your family is one of the basic ways that a parent cares for that family. Not being able to provide that food really can make you feel as (if you are) a failure, and being able to have that one success can help people have other successes. That’s what we’ve seen in our program: As people become successful in providing healthy meals for their family, they become successful in other avenues of their life as well. Having information can help them make the best of a bad situation.
McBurney: Parents and other caregivers want to provide that meal, and they want to provide a healthy meal. If you can’t go to the grocery store for three weeks or don’t have the ability to do so, and you’re lucky enough to have a pantry by the time you get down to the bare bones, what’s left is not necessarily the things that make up a meal. So having the ability to create a meal that has protein in there – it might not be meat, but it might be beans or nuts or nut butters and it might be something different than you are used to – is important.
Another thing that’s important is that we come across families a lot of times in our programs that eat out five times a week. When restaurants closed, they had to get back in the kitchen. By providing them with information about our programs and some of the online information we offer on meal preparation, we’re giving them information on where they can go to learn how to get a healthy meal on the table.
Has COVID-19 had any implications for the future of EFNEP and Steps to Health programming?
Haynes-Maslow: Even before COVID-19, we realized that not everybody learns the same way, and they like to access information in different platforms. We’re getting a lot of information and programming online. This made us jumpstart a lot of these ideas that were in a planning phase to implementation.
I don’t see our digital platforms going away.
With Steps to Health, I don’t see our digital strategy going away. I think some people feel more comfortable on their phones or tablets, but some are still more comfortable in person and we want to make sure that anybody who needs nutrition education and is eligible for our programs can access them.
Jones: EFNEP policy specifies that our programs be delivered by paraprofessionals under the direction of a family and consumer sciences professional and that it is face-to-face and hands-on. A couple years ago the policy was amended to allow us to deliver some lessons via technology. That’s because we have individuals in our audience who may be working two, possibly three jobs to make ends meet, and so trying to get them into a weekly class in a face-to-face setting is really difficult.
As we have moved toward online strategies, one of our educators had a very poignant question: ‘If we have all these online lessons, are they going to want to come to face-to-face classes again?’ And my response to her was, ‘I think when we’re allowed to do face-to-face programming again, people are really going to be hungry for that interaction. I think you’re going to be able to use all the strategies we developed during this time going forward so that we can continue to meet the needs of our audience.’
Both the card deck project and our move toward more online programs highlighted the flexibility of Extension professionals. They have that heart that wants to help, and that’s what drives each and every one of us. With that mindset, they’re going to flex to do things that maybe they’re not comfortable doing, but they will do those because that’s the way they need to do it to reach the people who need the help.