For NC State Extension, providing services to all 100 counties requires tireless efforts even in the best of times. But the accomplishments of hundreds of Extension personnel during the COVID-19 pandemic have been nothing short of amazing. Always vital in connecting the community to research, technology and education, Extension stepped up those efforts to make sure every conceivable need was addressed.
By late March, stay-at-home orders and selective business shutdowns changed everything for many of us—the way we worked, learned and lived. As activities for many shifted online, NC State Extension didn’t miss a beat. It began making the transition to providing virtual, essential services to schoolchildren, families, farm operators, farmworkers, food service workers, community leaders and the public. It started by setting up a website that served as a one-stop shop to highlight COVID-19 research and resources. It combined online communication avenues and in-person services to address the threat of the disease and the fallout it caused.
The pandemic spanned the peak agriculture season for much of the state. Virtual farm visits and long-distance consultations were necessary to deal with typical agronomic issues. But COVID-19 brought new needs to the farming community, including the 70,000 to 80,000 farmworkers who harvest various crops around the state. Their typical communal living conditions made the spread of COVID-19 much easier. Extension worked with other state and local agencies to try to stop the spread among workers and in housing with outbreaks. They also helped locate alternative housing in some cases.
Almost 1 million masks were distributed to farm employers and workers in eastern North Carolina and 2,000 in the mountain region. Extension staff provided education in person, including social distance training, and via resource materials in English and Spanish. As guest workers arrived on Christmas tree farms, Extension personnel helped coordinate mass COVID-19 testing.
Helping Schoolchildren and Families
Shuttered classrooms prompted a need for more than alternative access to curriculum. There was also a threat that some children would go hungry. Food insecurity was a major concern brought about by remote instruction—children who depended on free and reduced-cost breakfasts and lunches provided by schools were at risk.
NC State Extension’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Program recorded lessons to enrich elementary school virtual learning experiences and helped ensure children continued to have access to health and nutrition education. In Wake County, Extension agents helped connect food producers and vendors to nonprofits and families in need to ensure equitable distribution of food items. The Wake Child and Family Food Relief team helped map out distributions, compare them to economic vulnerability and economic health indices, and coordinate efforts with local food pantries and food banks. More than 70,000 produce boxes were provided to families through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families program. Program volunteers also helped to create a food resource locator app to help NC State Extension partners, staff and families find food. As a whole, more than 4 million meals were served from more than 202 distribution locations.
Connecting to Food Service Workers
Once in pandemic mode, NC State Extension’s food safety team quickly began researching and creating resources to address ever-increasing food safety concerns. It leant support to North Carolina’s $21.4 billion restaurant industry, which accounts for nearly 500,000 jobs (roughly 11% of employment in the state). Team members led and participated in more than 70 webinars and created more than 150 educational resources in four languages for the food industry to manage COVID-19. The food safety team multiplied its effort using the media, conducting more than 400 interviews resulting in over 950 media stories quoting team members.
To bolster a plan for reopening the restaurant industry, NC State Extension partnered with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association and Visit NC to launch the “Count On Me NC” program. This program equips restaurant personnel with the knowledge they need to successfully operate within COVID-19 restrictions. Free, online courses provide information on guidelines and restaurants’ roles in preventing further COVID-19 spread.