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Cornell program celebrates 50 years of nutrition education

Nutrition educators from across New York state joined Cooperative Extension staff and university faculty June 17-18 for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program.

Over the last 50 years, more than a half-million children in New York state have benefited from the Expanded Food Nutrition Education Program(EFNEP), a federal program delivered through Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) that helps families with limited resources learn how to eat healthy meals on a budget and lead active, healthy lives.

To recognize a half-century of making a positive difference, 200 nutrition educators from throughout the state joined CCE staff and university faculty for a conference and celebration, June 17-18 at the Statler Hotel.

“Just think about all of the families that those of you and your predecessors have affected in New York state,” said Jamie Dollahite, professor and director of the Northeast Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Center of Excellence, Food and Nutrition Education in Communities, which manages EFNEP.

“You’ve taught them to use their food resources to their best advantage,” Dollahite said, “to eat better, to be healthier themselves, to have healthier children and … to develop self-esteem, to feel better about themselves as they graduate from our program.”

Currently operating in 29 New York counties and in New York City, EFNEP is a collaboration among the College of Human Ecology (CHE), the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) and CCE.

The positive impact that community educators have had on New York state families over the past 50 years is significant, Dollahite said. According to EFNEP statistics, a total of 320,000 adults have been enrolled in the program over the past half-century; this has led to 1.3 million family members and more than 500,000 children experiencing improvement in their eating and health habits.

“There have been many changes over time,” Dollahite said. “But our community educator model stands firm, as does the close collaboration with community partners, which together make EFNEP effective.”

EFNEP is a federally funded nutrition education program for youth and families delivered through the Cooperative Extension Service in every state and U.S. territory. The program began in 1969 and quickly grew to be the largest nutrition education program in the country, helping participants: increase their ability to select and buy food; learn skills in food preparation, storage and sanitation; and better manage their food budgets and related resources.

Since CCE began delivering the program in New York in 1969, it has served 61 of the state’s 62 counties with hands-on, interactive workshops to help participants improve food and physical activity behaviors, food resource management, food safety and food security.

“It’s a very rewarding job,” said Tina Snyder, nutrition program educator with CCE Tompkins County. “In over 20 years I’ve seen a lot of success among the people I’ve worked with, myself included: I actually was a participant in this program when my son was small. I think the beauty of that is, I was where some of these participants are at and I’m able to translate that into helping them be successful.”

The need for such a program is great. “In New York state, 16% of the state’s population lives at or below the poverty rate, with 22% of children under the age of 18 living in poverty,” said Kimberly Kopko, associate director of Cornell Cooperative Extension and Outreach in CHE.

Similarly, the state’s rate of overweight or obese adults is 61%; among children age 10-17, the rate is 31.8%. Being overweight or obese can lead to serious chronic health problems including diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. According to the U.S. Department of Health, nutrition education can mitigate these health problems associated with unhealthy nutritional intake.

“We see savings of $10 in health costs for every EFNEP dollar invested, and approximately savings of $5 in food costs for every dollar spent,” Kopko said. “That’s an impressive number to share with legislators, potential funders or anyone who may be deciding on funding for the program.”

The program is developing new ways to bring nutrition education to families across the state.

“Our national leadership is looking at social media, mobile technology and distance learning as spaces for us to grow,” said Joan Paddock, senior extension associate who leads EFNEP programming throughout New York state.

Paddock mentioned several examples of programs across the nation – including Day to Day Eats, a blog on health eating that’s managed by Cornell students and extension associates – using digital technology to help people eat and live better. “I don’t have a crystal ball,” she said, “but I think we have some exciting times ahead of us.”

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.