Formally established by an act of Congress in 1914, extension programs are based at land-grant colleges and universities and tasked with providing nonformal, research-based education to agricultural producers, business owners and the general public on a wide variety of topics, from parenting and gardening to cooking and food safety.
“There’s really something for everyone,” says Shauna Henley, a family and consumer sciences senior agent with the University of Maryland Extension, Baltimore County.
That has continued to evolve especially since last year. “We had to really flex and change during the pandemic,” says Garden-Robinson, an extension food and nutrition specialist at North Dakota State University. Extension programs have risen to meet the needs of people more interested in gardening, preserving and cooking at home in the past 14 months. Much of that outreach has come in the form of social media posts and other online programs, including classes. Plenty saw last year’s fiasco at Bon Appétit, in which host Brad Leone demonstrated in a now-deleted video how to water-bath canned seafood (which you should never do), as a sort of call to arms — and a perfect example of why dependable, science-based education is so necessary.
Here’s a rundown of what extension can do for you.
Serve as a reliable information source: Anyone who has ever done an online search knows how much bad advice there is out there. When it comes to food, it may not just be bad, says Sue Mosbacher, a master food preserver program coordinator for the University of California Cooperative Extension, it could be unsafe. Part of what extension does is take research happening on campuses or in the broader scientific community and translates it into something accessible to the general public, says Mosbacher’s colleague, Erin DiCaprio, a specialist in community food safety.
“We are held to a high level of evidence,” Garden-Robinson says, whether that’s from universities or government sources.
If you’re doing an online search, Mosbacher recommends adding a “.edu” domain to your search terms to try to capture results from extension programs. Including the term “extension” is another good move. You can also find the extension program associated with the land-grant schools in your state — here’s a map — and start exploring their offerings. Programs do their best to cater to the specific needs of their particular communities, which is why you might find lots of information related to fish and game in Alaska or, as Mosbacher can attest to, preserving in the produce haven of California.
Extension can also provide you direct access to experts or people who know experts. Agents can do one-on-one consultations when people have a question, Henley says. It’s not uncommon for agents and coordinators to have a PhD and even if the person you talk to doesn’t know the answer, they will reach out to faculty experts on their campus or agents from other programs to try to find it. “We get some interesting questions,” Mosbacher says, recalling one inquiry about dehydrating fish bladders.
Provide affordable education: Most extension resources are free or low-cost. Those that do require a fee are often just to cover the cost of materials, such as for a canning class, Mosbacher says. One of my favorite extension offerings is the boring-sounding but infinitely practical fact sheet. Over the course of reporting various stories, I have come across well-written, tape-to-your-fridge kind of leaflets on high-altitude baking from the Colorado State University Extension and the shelf life of nuts from the University of California Cooperative Extension, among others. Henley says part of her task is to try to find topic areas that haven’t been covered so that she can produce fact sheets, which may be catered to her local audience. Can’t find what you’re looking for? Just ask.
Another avenue: podcasts. Food Safety Talk, for example, is hosted by two scientists from FoodCoVNET, a consortium of experts from North Carolina State University, Rutgers, the University of Florida and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln formed in response to covid-related questions about the food supply chain. Topics have included everything from dishwashers and freezing food to the infamous Sqirl jam and the difference between bacteria and pathogens.
Help you be a better, safer and healthier home cook: “We cover all areas of the food system from start to finish,” as well as all skill levels, Mosbacher says. Want to know what to plant in your backyard or container garden? Consult a master gardener. When those plants go bananas and you need to know how to can, freeze or dehydrate all that produce — and then use what you preserve — extension has you covered. Many extension employees and volunteers are avid cooks who like to test and swap recipes, Mosbacher says.
Extension is also heavily involved in food safety — before, during and after cooking. Henley, for example, conducted scientific research about the dangers of washing poultry and helped launch a “Don’t Wash Your Chicken!” campaign to educate consumers. (“I always joke that I went to school for biology and not marketing,” Henley says about her various outreach efforts.) Consumers can find information on food issues related to preparing for and dealing with the aftermath of natural disasters that may result in power outages. Some extension programs will conduct safety testing on food products from small business or legally required training for food handlers and managers.
Give you your next volunteer opportunity: While many extension employees are university-based, “really, the volunteers are the boots on the ground doing the work, interacting with the public. They go through rigorous training,” DiCaprio says. Volunteers on the local level (typically by county) are often the ones offering classes to the public or even, at least pre-pandemic, holding office hours and answering questions via email and phone. Those in Mosbacher’s program, for example, must undergo 18 weeks of class and hands-on training. If you’re someone who likes to make a difference in your community, consider reaching out to extension. “It makes you feel good when you can help other people and use your knowledge to help people improve their lives,” Garden-Robinson says.
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