Teaching Nutrition: A Basic Goal of Extension

Linda Benedict, McClure, Olivia J.  |  6/23/2014 7:23:38 PM

Olivia McClure

In a state home to diverse flavors as well as a history of poverty, many Louisianans struggle to make healthy, affordable eating choices. Because agriculture’s foremost goal is to feed people, nutrition has always been a central part of the LSU AgCenter’s extension efforts.

In the early days of extension work, home demonstration agents, later extension home economists, taught homemakers how to safely preserve food, which was often grown on their small family farms. For many rural residents, these agents were the sole source of nutrition information.

“There was no mass media,” said retired LSU AgCenter nutrition specialist Beth Reames. “It was the extension agents who helped homemakers can food safely, prepare foods healthfully and prevent foodborne illnesses.”

Farming became a less common way of life as America urbanized in the mid-20th century. Nutrition specialists, an increasing number of whom were registered dietitians, began focusing less on food preservation and safety and more on healthy cooking methods and consumer choices. Exercise and dieting became hot topics as obesity and diabetes affected a growing percentage of Americans.

At the same time, technology was evolving in ways that made it easier for extension agents to reach people and vice versa.

Reames, who began working at the AgCenter in 1983 and retired in 2013, said agents used to spend a lot of time on the road, going from place to place to give presentations. They would “load up the car with brochures and go,” visiting schools, community organizations and extension offices across Louisiana.

“Sometimes you’d go around and see your name in lights or on the high school marquee — ‘welcome Dr. Beth Reames’ or whoever it was — because you were really looked at as a celebrity,” Reames said.

As PowerPoint presentations replaced flipcharts and easels, extension agents had to learn to use computers. Email, and later, social media provided a faster link to people who needed information.

Technology empowered agents to create their own factsheets and other materials. It also enabled them to complete training sessions remotely through videoconferencing, saving time they once spent traveling.

Donna Montgomery, who was a nutrition specialist from 1972 to 2002, took advantage of television and radio to help extension reach the masses. She created a monthly TV spot with food buying tips that promoted Louisiana products.

Montgomery dedicated much of her time to writing publications and lesson plans that county agents used for classes on topics such as osteoporosis, lowering cholesterol and food safety at fairs and festivals. Food labels changed significantly during Montgomery’s career, and extension helped people learn how to read them to make better decisions and understand marketing techniques.

“Learning to purchase foods not just to save money, but to make wise choices is important for all income levels,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery, who was a 4-H’er growing up and a 4-H agent for eight years before becoming a nutrition specialist, also worked with 4-H agents to develop lessons and short programs. She said one of her favorite parts of her job was working with extension specialists in various areas such as horticulture and beef to make sure information was accurate and easy to understand.

Providing that information would be impossible, however, without people who believe in extension and its power to improve lives.

“I liked seeing how people are helped, and I really enjoyed working with 4-H and seeing the growth of children through the years,” Montgomery said. “Extension is a family. Most people that I know in extension came and retired in extension. Not many people left.”

One hundred years after extension was born, that family continues to grow and touch lives every day.

“It’s a valuable organization that people can depend on, and I think that is the key to extension’s success,” Reames said. “People do realize the value of the information they get from the extension service.”

Olivia McClure is a student worker in LSU AgCenter Communications.

(This article was published in the spring 2014 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

Watch how extension nutritionists help people get healthy, Agents of Change: Health & Nutrition. (1:13 min)

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