Food insecure in Kentucky? Not if UK Cooperative Extension has a say in battle against hunger
By Carol Lea Spence
University of Kentucky
As the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the state, sickening people, shuttering businesses, closing schools and temporarily crimping the food supply, a lot of people found themselves suddenly wondering how they would be able to feed their families.
Without any warning, more Kentuckians than usual found themselves among the “food insecure.”
To be food insecure is to have inadequate or unreliable access to food. Jason Dunn, director of Kentucky’s Department for Community Based Services, which issues Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, said benefit issuances increased dramatically this spring.
“Issuance went from around $55 million in February to upwards of $174 million for April and May, more than tripling,” he said.
That was due to an increase in participants and an increase in the amount of benefits people received. States were allowed to issue the maximum amount of benefit to each household, and children who would normally receive free or reduced-price school meals were eligible for Pandemic EBT cards.
“This crisis has made it even more obvious how important community-based food systems are and just how important it is to always have equitable food distribution at the forefront of our minds and our strategy,” said Heather Hyden, extension research coordinator in the University of Kentucky Department of Community and Leadership Development.
UK Cooperative Extension, with its Nutrition Education Program, has been on the front lines fighting food insecurity for some time. When the pandemic began, extension double-timed their efforts to help their clientele.
“Our systems weren’t prepared for this at all, and we’re really lucky to have the organizations like Cooperative Extension, that have infrastructure already set up in place,” Hyden said. “We really need these grassroots efforts right now, because those are the people who have the relationships to the communities that are struggling with food insecurity.”
UK extension agents and NEP assistants in all 120 counties have helped more than 400 organizations provide needy families with food and information for staying safe and healthy. Extension staff work diligently to ensure that people not only have food, but know how to prepare it, preserve it and stretch it.
When the School Door Closes
When the schools closed, students who received much-needed nutrition there were suddenly in danger of going hungry. To have that nutrition pipeline slam shut was a great source of stress for families and school officials.
Lee Ann McCuiston, Todd County 4-H youth development agent, contacted her county school system’s superintendent and food service director to offer extension’s assistance. She worked daily with the schools and Family Resources Youth Services Center for the remainder of the school year to pack and deliver around 320 meals to youth at one of 10 designated pickup locations around the county. Along with the lunches, McCuiston included nutrition-related messages and easy recipes.
Steering Through the Storm
Navigating assistance programs and options can be difficult, especially for people who suddenly find themselves in a new and frightening situation. Marissa Aull is the director of UK’s Nutrition Education Program. She witnessed this sudden need for information and assistance up close.
“Not only do individuals find it difficult to navigate where to get assistance, but not-for-profits, food banks and food pantries have been overwhelmed with the numbers,” she said. “Their goal is always to serve everyone, but everyone came at one time. We’ve seen a lot of requests for help from our partners, and we’re grateful that we’ve been able to strengthen those partnerships that were already in place and make new partnerships, as well.”
NEP partners with Feeding Kentucky, a partner state association of Feeding America, the nation’s leading domestic hunger-relief charity. In 2019, a pilot program developed by the two organizations connected NEP assistants to specific food pantries to offer in-person education.
The pandemic forced them to veer onto a different track this year and make use of an existing social media program NEP also piloted in 2019. Due to that experience, NEP was able to quickly offer Facebook Live classes to the food pantries. Food pantry clients also receive nutrition education programming and curriculum, which they can then take home and join live classes online.
“Our program assistants have formed lots of new partnerships with those pantries to provide information, grab-and-go bags and reinforcement items that usually go along with in-person classes,” Aull said. “We’ve been really excited to see this opportunity for partnering to achieve the same goal of food security.”
In Meade County, where almost 3,000 people out of population of 28,000 received SNAP benefits in May, and in Perry County, where a third of the population receive SNAP, NEP assistants Teri King and Reda Fugate, respectively, use Facebook Live to teach classes on nutrition, affordable balanced diets and food preparation.
Some of their clients are new, and some have been participating in the programs for a while. Amanda Lawson has taken Fugate’s Healthy Choices classes both in-person and now online. She emailed Fugate to express her appreciation.
In watching your videos, we (me & the kids) have been talking about food safety (while using the meat thermometer you sent); we’ve discussed the cost of each item and how to break down food costs which helps us to lower our grocery budget. We spend at most $100/person/month. We always have something green to eat at every meal and try to make Healthy Choices as much as possible. For example, tonight we had taco salads with homemade pico de gallo and guacamole. We used black beans to make the meat go further and bump up the nutrients. I’d suggest your program to anyone/everyone. I feel like more people need to learn how to not only cook healthier meals for their family but also how to budget for those meals. Thank you for everything you do.
Sincerely, Amanda Lawson & Kids
There are even a few friendly competitions on social media to entice people to try new things in their kitchens.
King does a weekly cooking challenge. She supplies participants with a mystery bag containing four ingredients. As a family, they create a healthy recipe. The winner receives a $20 farmers market gift certificate.
“It’s been so much fun,” she said. “I’m getting new families every week. You’d be amazed at what these families are coming up with.”
A Box Can Contain A Lot
King and Fugate help box and distribute food at a number of local food pantries, as well as work through the school-based Family Resource and Youth Services Centers to provide a daily meal to children while schools are closed. To each box of food, they add materials from UK about COVID-19 and handwashing, nutrition information and recipes for the items contained in their boxes. Children receiving meals during the school year and in the Summer Feeding Program also find ideas for fun activities.
Once a month, Feeding America distributes items such as milk, butter, canned fruits and vegetables, cheese and chicken. Early in the year, King asked local businesses if they would like to help with the distribution.
“It takes an army, really. I feel it has brought the community together and showed them how much need there is out there,” she said. “The first time we held it at the fairgrounds, in March, we had nine rows of cars, probably 30 deep, an hour before we opened. None of us expected that. It was quite eye-opening.”
Fugate works closely with the Perry County Health and Wellness Coalition, which comprises representatives from the health department, the school systems, family resource centers and Appalachian Regional Healthcare.
“We try to make sure the kids in the county have healthy food choices,” she said.
Benefits from Benefits
Jann Knappage, NEP specialist, said she and her colleagues have been trying to collect resources and create a “collective” of programs and information for first-time SNAP participants. She is on the executive board of Community Farm Alliance, the statewide organization that runs the Kentucky Double Dollars program. In that program, SNAP recipients are able to make their money go twice as far when purchasing fruits and vegetables at participating farmers markets.
“You don’t have to go without, if you shopped regularly at a farmers market before you were on SNAP,” Knappage explained. “My coworker, Jackie Walters, and I have been coordinating between CFA and NEP to get that information out. I know it’s beginning to work, because we’ve seen increased numbers.”
Knappage works with CFA’s Farmers Market Support Program staff in their efforts to reach limited-resource Kentuckians to make sure everyone has access to the proper nutrition and most up-to-date information. She also coordinates with Brittany Steffey, CFA’s food access program director.
“We want people to come out and spend their SNAP benefits at the markets,” Steffey said. “The money they spend goes to farmers. That extra federal money is staying in the community. The pandemic is not a great situation, but at least we can mitigate some of the effects of it for farmers and for the families getting the benefits now.”
Steffey said the partnership with Cooperative Extension is a broad one. The two organizations work together at the state level on policy matters. At the county level, CFA coordinates with NEP assistants who do nutrition education to promote the Kentucky Double Dollars program. In many counties, the extension office is also the distribution site for CFA’s Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program vouchers.
Already Grown, But Still Growing
The advantage UK Cooperative Extension has during this time of crisis is the existence of programs that could be used or easily modified to respond to current needs. Knapppage focuses on several programs that include empowering folks to grow their own food.
“Nothing I’m doing was created because of the pandemic, though we have found greater need for it now,” Knappage said.
She and specialists in the UK Department of Horticulture, have produced an accessible series of gardening publications called Growing Your Own. By fall, there will be 10 issues out that focus on bed preparation and how to grow specific popular vegetables.
She is also collaborating with Kentucky State University and the Kentucky Department of Agriculture on a Victory Garden campaign.
They held an agent training in May that covered new and existing resources. Agents disseminate that information throughout their counties and provide programming. Some are doing grab-and-go programs, like Gardening in a Bag, where participants can pick up seeds, pots and tools to create container gardens in limited spaces.
“We packaged information and programming together in a response to food insecurity, so folks wanting to grow their own food could be a little more self-sufficient,” Knappage said.
Like everywhere in the state, Louisville is seeing an increase in the number of people participating in food assistance programs, which is putting a strain on food pantries.
“There has been a lot of conversation in our city about how we work with folks who need food assistance, but maybe are limited in the number of times they can go to the food pantry closest to them. Gardening, obviously, is a great way to provide a more sustained source of food,” said Bethany Pratt, Jefferson County extension horticulture agent.
Pratt is a member of the Louisville Urban Agriculture Coalition, comprised of 10 local organizations that focus on food, gardening and food systems. Among other things, the group has been working on city policy to help increase citizen access to vacant land for agricultural use.
Currently, the Jefferson County extension office manages 10 of the 35 community garden sites in Louisville. Plots are either free or available for a small fee for citizens to grow food or flowers. Pratt said there has been a “sharp increase” in the number of participants this year, which has been directly related to concerns about food security during the pandemic.
“We have about 600 registered community garden participants in our 10 garden programs. Most of them are at least a family of four, though some of our families are much larger,” she said. “If you do the math, you can see the amount of people we’re reaching through the gardening program.”
Pratt said those people represent everyone from those who were laid off from 12-hour shifts and suddenly had the time to garden to folks who were very concerned about grocery shortages and had never planted a seed in their life. It was the latter group that inspired her to start a beginning gardening video series.
Pratt’s short how-to videos, available online, address many of the common questions new gardeners ask her. She used her own front yard to shoot the pieces, not only because she was working from home, but because she felt it could help people picture how they could use their property.
Pratt said, apart from shoring up the food supply, gardening provides other benefits during the pandemic.
“It provides a sense of control in a situation that we really can’t control,” she said. “Gardening is really providing a sense of emotional security above and beyond the nutritional need.”
Whether it’s hands in the soil, filling boxes at food pantries, or using the latest technology to reach out to those who need them the most, UK Cooperative Extension has taken the COVID-19 challenge and succeeded in doing what it does best: helping Kentuckians become healthier and more self-sufficient.