Imagine running out of food, with small children to feed, and no food stamps for another week. Friday’s paycheck has to pay your utility bill, or they will cut off your electricity. Feeling panicked yet? Picture what it was like, over 40 years ago, to have someone from UConn Extension knock on your door and ask if you need help learning how to feed your family for less.
Since 1969, Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) educators have been helping thousands of families and youth in some of the most challenged neighborhoods in Connecticut.
While parts of Connecticut are affluent, our state has deep pockets of poverty that can lead to food insecurity and hunger. Some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country are in urban areas of our state. Food deserts, or areas that lack access to grocery stores and fresh food, contribute to the problem. This includes urban centers as well as more remote rural areas where transportation is a major hurdle for accessing healthy foods. Coupled with the challenging economy, the state has seen an increase in the number of families with children using soup kitchens and food assistance.
During the 1960’s, there was increasing awareness of the health problems associated with poverty. Hunger and poor nutrition were identified through several government studies. Cooperative Extension leaders recognized that programming was not reaching low-income populations as well as it could. In 1962, several states conducted pilot projects focusing on the best way to reach this audience with food and nutrition information. Throughout the mid 1960’s, effective land-grant university projects helped to build administrative support for establishing a program within Cooperative Extension.
EFNEP is the oldest federal nutrition education program for low-income families, being formally established in 1969. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) administers EFNEP at land-grant universities in all U.S. states and territories, and the District of Columbia. The program provides practical, hands-on food and nutrition education to tackle societal challenges such as hunger, malnutrition, poverty, and obesity.
UConn Extension has eleven EFNEP educators in communities throughout the state. EFNEP is active in cities such as Hartford, New Britain, New Haven, New London, Willimantic, Bridgeport, and Danbury. Bilingual programs and materials, cooking classes, and educational trips to the grocery store are a few offerings.
When the program first began, EFNEP educators did knock on doors to recruit participants. Today, EFNEP staff develop relationships with community-based organizations and agencies who work with low-income families and youth. One of the first pilot projects, in the 1960’s, was conducted in a Bridgeport housing project. Dr. Janina Czajkowski-Esselen directed this pilot project. She was one of the visionary thinkers who helped develop the concepts behind the EFNEP program.
There is a unique peer educator component in EFNEP, which has since been used in communities around the world. The program considers the situation of each participant, and tries to help them identify and determine solutions to their issues around food choices, shopping, feeding families, food safety, and food insecurity.
The program meets clients where they are, and considers economics, culture, and literacy in programs and materials. Educators use interactive, hands-on teaching methods through conversations, not lectures.
Participants develop skills that can help them improve their food and nutrition practices for better health and quality of life. Depending on the situation of the family, this may mean just having enough food at home to last from payday to payday.
UConn EFNEP educators serve as a link between program participants and other local agencies, including federal programs such as Women, Infants and Children (WIC) or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp program) that participants may qualify for.
In 2015, EFNEP reached 1,850 participants, and 2,089 family members. Since the program’s inception, over 48,000 families with more than 150,000 family members, and close to 200,000 youth have learned from educators about improving health and quality of life. For more information about EFNEP, visit the NIFA website:nifa.usda.gov/program/expanded-food-and-nutrition-education-program-efnep