BLACKSBURG, Va. — The experience of not knowing where or when your family’s next meal is coming from is an unfortunate reality for many Virginians.
Food is a basic human need, but reduced hours, a layoff, increased rent prices, a car repair, or other emergency can lead a family to financial and food insecurity.
Virginia Cooperative Extension and the Family Nutrition Program work to combat food insecurity and hunger across the commonwealth, with many causes brought to the forefront over the last two years as the pandemic gripped the state.
The COVID-19 pandemic increased the number of Virginians who struggle to acquire enough food consistently to feed themselves and their families. It is estimated that an additional 446,000 Virginians have become food insecure during the pandemic, in addition to the 850,000 Virginians who were already struggling before the pandemic and economic downturn.
Extension actively addresses this public health and economic crisis across the state by supporting the growth of local food systems and providing technical assistance for farmers markets to be able to accept electronic bank transfer (EBT). In addition, through hands-on, interactive learning lessons and educational outreach efforts, Extension professionals are helping improve access to nutritious foods for low-income participants and empower them with nutrition education based on the USDA’s MyPlate guidelines.
By supporting Virginia-grown products, food, and markets; gardening at home and in communities; nutrition education to better manage available food resources and healthier purchases; and collaborating with communities to address barriers to food access, Extension is helping improve community food security, self-sufficiency, and access to the most basic of human needs.
- The Master Gardener Program has a long tradition of training community members to become local resources for gardening, including vegetables. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Extension has also provided free container and community gardens to participating locations.
- Through evidence-based programs, teens and adults have learned essential cooking skills to prepare low-cost, healthy snacks and meals at home.
- The Family Nutrition Program works with individuals with low incomes to improve food resource management skills and manage SNAP benefits.
- Extension agents provide a wide range of technical assistance and educational programs to food producers to support agricultural production.
- Technical assistance is provided to farmers markets to create markets for small farmers and also support sales, including the redemption of SNAP at farmers markets.
Jeanell Smith, senior Family Nutrition Program assistant, helps a member of the community via the telephone. Virginia Cooperative Extension’s efforts are further enhanced by collaborations with food banks, ranchers, farmers, food retailers, faith-based organizations, and after-school programs, among others.
“We not only need enough food, but access to affordable, nutritious foods that align with personal preferences, cultural values, and other held values,” said Elena Serrano, director of the Family Nutrition Program. “We will have a healthier and more vibrant commonwealth if we achieve that.”
Extension has forged partnerships with organizations and agencies of all kinds across the commonwealth to deliver needs-driven programs to advance the health and wellbeing of all Virginians. These are further enhanced by collaborations with food banks, ranchers, farmers, food retailers, faith-based organizations, and after-school programs, among others.
These partnerships include the Center for Food Systems and Community Transformation and the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
“Integrating Extension, and both community and campus initiatives into our core curriculum is a focal point of the civic agriculture and food systems minor,” said Kim Niewolny, an associate professor in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education and director of the Center for Food Systems and Community Transformation “This is a place for students to actively engage in food access issues in our community and on our campus.”
Inspired by partnerships with nonprofits such as Live Work Eat Grow these students are the people that are going to be working to address food insecurity now and in the future.
“Our students gain experiences that carry forward into their civic and professional life that, I feel, is significant as it changes the way they see their relationship with food, agriculture, and societal issues,” Niewolny said.
Extension and the Family Nutrition Program, along with its collaborators, build the education and access initiatives to the needs of the individual community.
“Everyone has a stake in ensuring equitable access to nutritious foods, especially our farmers and growers” Serrano said. “First, it is an ethical issue. But there are also other pragmatic implications that threaten our community’s livelihood and future well-being. For example, if employees are not properly nourished, they may not be as engaged or productive. If children don’t have access to enough food and nutritious meals, they are at a disadvantage for learning. They are more likely to struggle in the classroom.”
With a basic human need covered, people can reach their full potential and help boost health for all Virginians.