Category Archives: Nutrition

Taller? Healthier? Thank an Extension Educator

Tuskegee Institute Movable SchoolI’ve spoken more than once in this forum about Uva Hester, a pioneering Extension public health educator of the early 20th century.

Writing her weekly report in June 1920, Hester, a Tuskegee Institute health educator, related a horrifying experience with one of her clients, a young woman and tuberculosis patient, bedridden for more than a year, suffering from openings in her chest and side as well as a bedsore the size of a human hand on her back.

Her family had made no provision to protect her from the flies that swarmed around her, Hester soberly related.

It was a sight that almost defies human comprehension in the 21st century but that was all too common among southerners, particularly black southerners, in early 20th century Alabama.

Hester, along with a team of poorly funded but determined Tuskegee Institute educators, led by an equally determined and resourceful agent named Thomas Campbell, vowed to do something about it.  Working with the state’s health department, Tuskegee educators fanned out across the state, not only to care for the chronically ill but also to show their families and neighbors what they could do to prevent the spread of tuberculosis and other unsafe, if not potentially deadly, conditions.

I was reminded of Hester today after reading a New York Times article attesting to the immense advances in human health and well-being that have occurred within the last few centuries.

The Times reports that for almost three decades, a team of researchers led by Nobel Laureate Robert W. Fogel has been diligently investigating how changes in the size and shape of the human body reflect the dramatic strides in food production and human health and nutrition.  The results of this study have been compiled into a book titled “The Changing Human Body: Health, Nutrition and Human Development in the Western World Since 1700,” which will be published by Cambridge University Press in May, 2011.

The researchers maintain that “in most if not quite all parts of the world, the size, shape and longevity of the human body have changed more substantially, and much more rapidly, during the past three centuries than over many previous millennia” — as they stress, “minutely short by the standards of Darwinian evolution.”

One of the nation’s leading demographers and sociologists, the University of Pennsylvania’s Samuel Preston, puts the issue into sharp perspective:  Without the advances in nutrition, sanitation, and medicine, only half of the current American population would be alive today.

The last 100 years of progress are due in no small measure to Uva Hester and the thousands of Extension public health educators who have acquainted Americans with working knowledge that has not only improved their lives but, in an immense number of cases, actually saved them.

The Tuskegee Institute Extension efforts are only one of many examples of Extension-sponsored efforts aimed at improving basic nutritional and health skills, especially among limited resource families.  For example, in the early 1960s, five rural Alabama counties served as pilot sites for what later became known as the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), which was developed to provide directed education to limited resource families to improve their eating habits and homemaking skills.  The program was eventually expanded to all 50 states.

The role that pioneering Extension nutritional and health educators have played in these advances, while impressive, should not detract from the equally critical contributions of Extension agricultural educators in helping the nation’s farmers secure one of the greatest technological achievements in human history: a comparatively cheap, diverse and abundant food supply.

As Fogel stresses, technological advances rescued farmers from the endless cycle of subsistence farming.  For example, colonial-era farmers worked some 78 hours during a five-and-a-half day week.  Farmers needed more food to grow and gain strength, but they were unable to grow more food without being stronger.

The improved yields secured by advanced scientific farming methods broke this cycle and changed the face of farming forever.

The strong Extension emphasis on adopting farm mechanization — replacing draft animals with farm machinery — ultimately helped free up millions of acres of agricultural land to supply human needs — land that had been previously tied up to feed farm animals.

Despite these immense strides, Extension educators still face a bevy of challenges.

Fogel concedes that when he first began his research, he never imagined that technological advances would lead to chronic problems of overnutrition, which have contributed to obesity and related chronic conditions such as heart disease, stroke, hypertension and certain types of cancer.

Extension nutrition and health educators increasingly are being called upon to demonstrate practical ways to avoid these conditions.

Meanwhile, Extension agricultural educators are gearing up to help farmers build a new farming model by mid-20th century that not only incorporates both scientific farming advances and sustainable practices but  that is also equipped to feed some 9 billion people across the planet using less land, less water and less energy.

The “Lean Years:” A New Mission for Cooperative Extension?

A lot of what I do as a member of Alabama Extension’s Marketing Team is to think out loud, usually after digesting an article or op-ed about a topic that raises major implications for the Cooperative Extension mission.

The New York Times’s David Brooks’s most recent op-ed is one example — a piece appropriately named “The Lean Years.”

Writing about this severe recession, he paints an especially gloomy picture of the years of hard slogging that lie ahead for millions of Americans, particularly men and young people, before some semblance of normality returns.

He cites an essay in The Atlantic, which reports that almost a fifth of all U.S. men between 25 and 54 are without jobs — the highest such figure since the labor bureau began collecting and reporting these numbers in 1948.

America’s young people are also being disproportionally affected by this downturn.  Brooks cites a gloomy statistic from a previous severe recession:  College grads who entered the job market in 1981 earned 25 percent less than those who entered in more prosperous periods.  And this earnings gap persists for decades.  Over their lifetimes, recession kids will earn approximately $100,000 less than those hired during more auspicious periods.

Brooks fears that these trends will exact a heavy social cost among men and young people alike.

Among chronically unemployed men, this effect is often reflected by enhanced levels of alcoholism and child abuse, with millions of unemployed men sustaining what Brooks describes as “debilitating blows to their identity.”

Young people are also psychologically altered, less likely to switch jobs later in their career, even when greater opportunity beckons.

The burgeoning federal deficits will only contribute to further fraying. Deficits will command roughly 11 percent of the country’s entire economic input this year, leaving little room for expanded domestic initiatives. 

As Brooks observes, the social fabric, which has served throughout U.S. history to mitigate the effects of hard times, has begun to fray.   

These hard realties present Cooperative Extension educators with a challenge.

As one long-tenured Extension county coordinator related to me several months ago, Cooperative Extension has served a useful role within the last century providing people, often people on the margins of society, with basic skills to cope in difficult times.  The coming lean years, which will be characterized by both chronic unemployment and underemployment as well as fewer federal domestic initiatives, present Americans with a unique set of challenges  — challenges that Cooperative Extension System is especially well-equipped to meet.

Working through its 4-H youth empowerment, home gardening, nutrition and community develop programs, Cooperative Extension educators are poised to build and new and enduring legacy of self-empowerment.  How?  By providing the most hard-pressed among us with the vital coping skills they require to endure the next few years.  By empowering them, we also lend a hand in helping restore this nation’s vital, but frayed, social fabric.

Sustainability: The Future of Cooperative Extension Programming

Okay, I’m convinced: The biggest issue for Extension for the foreseeable future will be sustainability.  The recent columns of three New York Times writers helped close the sale for me.

Here’s why:

First, persistent concerns about the carbon threat.  Granted, I’m not entirely convinced that global warming is real.  But then again, I’m no expert.  And the fact remains that a majority of this nation’s policymakers and pundits believe it to be true.  Thomas Friedman perceives it not only as a real but even as an immediate threat, especially considering the possibility that

… the next emitted carbon molecule will tip over some ecosystem and trigger a nonlinear event — like melting the Siberian tundra and releasing all its methane, or drying up the Amazon or melt all the sea ice in the North Pole in summer.  And when one ecosystem collapses, it can trigger unpredictable climate changes in others that could alter our entire world.

And there is the added threat of chronic debt and especially of its long-term implications for America’s future.  As Friedman observes,

…One need only look at today’s record-setting price of gold, in a period of deflation, to know that a lot of people are worried that our next dollar of debt— unbalanced by spending cuts or new tax revenues — will trigger a nonlinear move out of the dollar and torpedo the U.S. economy.

The worst-case scenario: A future in which U.S. national and local governments, faced with insurmountable debt levels, will no longer be able to make the public investments necessary to secure the future of younger generations of Americans.

If these factors have not yet bred a culture of malaise, they have put Americans into what Roger Cohen describes as a “different mental place.”

They’re paying down debt. They’re not hiring. They’ve gotten reacquainted with risk. They’re going to have to survive without Gourmet magazine.

And in the future, this will force Americans, whether they live in red or blue states, to put aside obsolescent cultural warfare and to embark on what David Brooks describes as a “crusade for economic self-restraint.”

Indeed, to an increasing degree, the elites as well as ordinary people fear that humanity is dealing with an ailing economic model that may even be teetering on collapse.

Add to that the concerns about the appalling state of American health, which to an increasing degree are ascribed to the current U.S. farm production system.  But there is an even bigger sustainability issue associated with health: The growing strains within the U.S. medical system that inevitably will force a greater emphasis on preventive health care – sustainability by any other name.

Simply put, for a variety of reasons, there is a growing, if not full-blown sense of malaise in 21st century America — which brings us back to that word again: sustainability.

Some elites and ordinary people alike are more disposed to this term than ever before.

Sustainability affords Cooperative Extension the opportunity to burnish our image, demonstrating to our clients and stakeholders how we will play an integral role helping build new production systems that factor in growing economic and environmental concerns.  As one of my Extension colleagues pointed out recently, we played a major role in building the so-called factory farming system.  Now we must demonstrate how we are helping people move toward production systems that are more environmentally sustainable.

Sustainability also empowers us in another way: It presents us with a golden opportunity to undertake one of the most important challenges of this century: to close the circle, showing how sustainability relates to all of us.  Yes, we help the planet by doing everything from recycling to adopting greener production systems, but we also help humanity – and, ultimately, our strained medical system — by adopting sustainable lifestyles that emphasize prevention.

Yes, I know, we’ve been promoting health lifestyles for years, but now the stars are aligned in a way they have never been before.

While I’ll confess to some bias, I believe no other organization is better equipped than Cooperative Extenison to educate people about what is undoubtedly the most important challenge of  the 21st century— building systems that will sustain our planet as well as our personal well-being.

 Yes, sustainability is the future of Cooperative Extension.

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Working with nutritionists such as Robert Keith on the subject of child nutrition for the past couple of decades, I’m still frequently reminded of what a highly complex subject this is.


Numerous studies underscore the fact that children have to be reached early in life.  Early success can produce a rich harvest — the reason why effectively instilling children with adequate nutrition skills by age 3 could be accurately described as the gift that keeps on giving.  Children who develop these skills have a much better chance of avoiding many of the chronic diseases now so frightfully common in the western world and, to and increasing degree, throughout the world — obesity, followed by type II diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and certain obesity-related types of cancer.


On the other hand, abject failure or simple negligence can result in a lifetime, however brief, of chronic suffering associated with these obesity-related diseases.


A study of roughly 400 fourth- and fifth-grade schoolchildren in Alabama’s impoverished Black Belt region revealed just what a heavy price many impoverished young people already are paying because of this lack of nutrition knowledge. An estimated third of the children in the study are overweight or at risk of becoming overweight. 

Adult-onset, also known as type II, diabetes already is showing up in children as young as age 2.


Predictably, much of the problem stems from disengaged parents and inadequate recreational facilities.


Government, schools, the health sector and, yes, corporate America have roles to play in reducing these alarming rates of obesity.  But the primary burden will remain on the parent, particularly while children are under age 3.


Much of this involves showing how eating can be fun. Persistence is important, too. Parents shouldn’t give up the first time their children turn their noses away from the first plate of spinach or broccoli.   Over time, if they see their parents eating healthy foods and, equally important, deriving enjoyment from them, they will, too.