Educational outreach and engagement are the core of Rutgers Cooperative Extension (RCE). Extension is in all 21 New Jersey counties, with the RCE Family and Community Health Sciences (FCHS) department in 14 of those counties. Like every other university or company, we are always looking for that opportunity to do something new, something different.
Our FCHS Strategic Plan guides our work for the planning and implementation of our educational programs in food, nutrition, health, and wellness, including chronic disease prevention. Each FCHS Educator is responsible for planning and implementing programs that will meet the needs of their specific county. You can imagine that the needs of Passaic County and Cape May County would be somewhat different.
When COVID-19 struck, no one knew what to expect and we soon found ourselves working remotely. If out of crisis comes opportunity, little did we know then that the “opportunity” would open a whole new world of virtual teaching for us, including gaining new audiences.
When we made the pivot to virtual teaching, some of our RCE departments had little experience in this area—it truly was a learn-by-doing experience. Our Rutgers NJAES Information Technology department was outstanding in getting all RCE departments up and running. If someone said, “here is a week to think of new ways of teaching,” I am not sure we would have had the same outcome as the virtual push out the door. Was there chaos at times? Yes, but I could not be prouder of the FCHS department as they rose to the occasion. Virtual teaching presented new opportunities for FCHS.
The rapid shift to online educational delivery engaged the entire department and required the establishment of focused teams to get programs up and running. Due to the many challenges COVID-19 presented to families, and the increased number of people working remotely from home, we experienced incredible interest in wellness programs. Many of our online programs had registrations of 100-200, while one program peaked at more than 500 registered people! Many of the FCHS Educators found unique ways to increase access to our signature “Wellness Wednesdays” program through their county Facebook pages. This series focuses on topics related to food, nutrition, and healthy lifestyles, providing easy steps to add positive health behaviors into your day. Topics range from reducing the amount of food waste you produce in your home to understanding how to read the new nutrition facts label.
We soon realized that we could incorporate additional social media venues to expand our teaching capacity to include cooking demonstrations. Somerset County FCHS was the first to adopt this method of learning and now other counties are doing it as well and posting on their Facebook pages. During this time, two FCHS Educators also converted what used to be an in-person eight-week Food Preservation Program to online instruction. Although the conversion presented initial challenges, it adapted successfully to the new format with the Educators conducting demonstrations remotely from home.
Our focus now shifts to having virtual programs that we feel people will need most as the New Year begins. When each New Year comes around, most people think of a few things—their weight gain over the past year, not engaging in enough physical activity, and oftentimes their financial situation. In January 2021, Dr. Barbara O’Neill, Rutgers Professor Emeritus and Extension Specialist in Financial Resource Management, will start off our New Year with a finance program. Dr. O’Neill and Union County Educator Dr. Karen Ensle will teach “Small Steps to Health and Wealth.” We will also be offering programs like, “Living Stress Free,” “A Strong Immune System to Start 2021,” “What Fitness Strategy Works Best for You,” and “Best Strategies for Weight Loss.” Another timely program will be “Lessons for Long Life–Blue Zones.” Blue Zones refer to geographic areas in the world where residents have low rates of chronic disease and live longer than anywhere else, like Okinawa, Japan and Sardinia, Italy.
We are also excited at the opportunity to partner with the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School – Department of Preventive Medicine. Medical school residents cannot fulfill community training during COVID. The director of the program and I spoke about the opportunity to have the residents team teach with our faculty in areas of chronic disease, extending the health and wellness resources of the university to families across the state.
The Family and Community Health Sciences department is looking forward to the new year. If it is anything like 2020, we are ready for new and engaging virtual learning experiences. Wishing you all, a Happy, Healthy and Safe New Year.
This article first appeared in the Rutgers Outreach column in the January 2021 Gardener News.