This is a personal essay by Nutrition Educator Sarah Martin and SNAP-Ed Program Manager Nicole Maline with Cornell Cooperative Extension Erie County.
In the last quarter of 2019, the Northwestern region SNAP-Ed team delivered almost 400 in-person programs to over 5000 participants. From Buffalo Public Schools to the Medina Library, we covered a wide range of nutrition topics.
Then COVID-19 happened. On Friday, March 13, we left our offices with a few extra materials and prepared to make the most of our remote work time until we could return to our usual programming.
Our partner sites were canceling outside programs like SNAP-Ed, so we had holes in our calendars to fill. Our leadership team did a phenomenal job organizing a task list for us, as well as helping us feel supported and engaged when we suddenly found ourselves isolated and somewhat adrift.
This situation challenged us in several ways. We worked hard to establish a level of work-life balance. The first few days were somewhat… thrilling. We were doing something totally outside our usual routine while also learning to navigate alongside spouses, roommates, children, and pets.
Previously, our programming happened during pre-scheduled days and times, and the rest of the work fell neatly into the gaps between. But while working from home, we had to reset our priorities and create a new routine to stay on task.
To some degree, SNAP-Ed educators also experienced a loss of identity. We used to move through the community, teaching people about MyPlate, and demonstrating how to prepare healthy meals. But suddenly, we weren’t doing that anymore. The abrupt loss of connection to the community was felt acutely as we worked to adapt our program to the new circumstances. There was an internal struggle between acknowledging our right to feel frustration, while also vocalizing intense gratitude to our leadership. They were working hard to keep us safe, sane, and engaged in rapidly changing circumstances.
Of course, the impact of COVID-19 on our community was bound to present new opportunities for action. Regionally, we developed a resource for the public, listing all the places they could go to get healthy, local food, with as much detail as we could provide. We worked alongside other CCE departments to assist with the distribution of produce boxes. Not only did this help SNAP-eligible individuals in our communities, but it also helped our local agri-business owners. In working with other arms of our Niagara and Erie Associations, we demonstrated why Cooperative Extensions work—because collaboration across programs uplifts the community as a whole.
As time went on, it felt as though the entire future of our program was wavering before our very eyes. It was time to ask some hard questions. How do we plan around uncertain deadlines? How do we adapt the program to now, not knowing what now will look like in a week, a month, a year? We decided that it was time to figure out a way to program virtually.
We embraced the opportunity to join calls and webinars with educators across the state. When you put so many people together in a “room,” creativity soars, and you wind up with a dozen possible solutions to a problem, instead of just one or two. Today, we’re communicating and collaborating with each other in a way we never imagined previously.
We have logged many hours working to master the Zoom platform and convert our lessons to digital ones. In dealing with the logistics of working from home, we’ve had to be flexible and creative in our endeavors!
We had to adapt to different forms of communication with our participants. We have to ensure we are using platforms they can access. Furthermore, we’ve lost our nonverbal cues, our natural inclination to have meaningful discourse or banter. These things may seem trivial, but they help us to connect with our audience and form trust.
On the flip side, we want to recognize that digital programming may allow us to reach more people. It eliminates time or transit barriers. This is also vitally important at this moment in time—when COVID-19 has caused the unemployment rate to soar to over 20%. More people than ever before are finding themselves reliant on SNAP dollars to feed their families, and they are counting on us to teach them how to maintain a healthy diet on a very tight budget.
In times of crisis, good food not only keeps our bodies running smoothly and helps us to stave off sickness, but it also brings people together. Assisting with local food distribution has been a very rewarding way for us to practice what we preach. We’ve also provided nutrition information and recipes. This is one of the many ways SNAP-Ed is continuing to serve our community in these trying times.
COVID-19 has forced us to rethink our goals, our delivery, and the needs of our participants, as well as allowing time for reflection, creativity, and improvement. The future of SNAP-Ed programming may look different, but we have adapted and will continue to do so with the support of our Extension leaders, community partners, and state leadership. We are determined to turn lemons into lemonade and continue to serve our neighbors with innovation and compassion.
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