A year into pandemic, MSU Extension’s health and nutrition virtual programming thrives

From food safety to farm stress, MSU Extension’s dedicated educators and instructors found innovative ways to learn, teach and connect — even in the most challenging of times.

Portraits of educators mentioned in the story: Beth Waitrovich, Eric Karbowski, and Ali Rogers.
MSU Extension educators Beth Waitrovich (left) and Eric Karbowski (top right), and instructor Ali Rogers (bottom right).

Like so many others at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Michigan State University Extension community nutrition instructor Ali Rogers’ professional world was flipped upside down. Almost her entire job before the pandemic consisted of delivering nutrition and physical activity education to people face to face.

But as soon as Michigan’s stay-at-home orders were put into place in March 2020, Rogers met the challenge head on. She immediately reached out to partners to let them know about the transition to virtual programming, and dove into tutorials to learn everything she could about online tools and programs.

Rogers quickly discovered the shift to virtual programming allowed her to reach participants who would have never signed up for a class due to work conflicts or the inability to receive child care — an unexpected silver lining. She also delivered nutrition and physical activity education to juvenile and recovery homes that were on lockdown because of the virus, tailoring her education in ways that were especially relevant to a world dealing with COVID-19.

“I have been able to explore ideas of food budgeting when grocery stores only allow a limited amount of customers,” Rogers said. “Participants and I have discussed how to get physical activity in when they cannot go to the gym and their children are not in school to go to gym class. Even with these barriers, I have made a lot of progress.”

Rogers is just one of MSU Extension’s many health and nutrition educators and instructors who, in the face of COVID-19, adapted and thrived to meet the needs of their communities. Prior to the pandemic, MSU Extension farm stress management specialist Eric Karbowski had been busy working within the agriculture community to teach about farm stress management.

“We were used to connecting with farmers in person, often at agriculture events or on site at farms,” Karbowski said. “The pandemic threw a wrench in our plans, but we weren’t going to let it stop us from providing supports to the farming community.”

Lunch-and-learn sessions and free, self-paced educational courses like Rural Resilience were delivered on a virtual platform. Partnering with Pine Rest Behavioral Services, MSU Extension’s farm stress team created a pilot program aimed at connecting farmers and commercial fishers undergoing stress with teletherapy services. A quick and simple online form was also built for farmers, aquaculture farmers and their families to securely and privately receive more information on these mental health services.

“The circumstances around COVID-19 have definitely been challenging, but it’s also allowed us to rethink new ways of outreach, engagement and education,” Karbowski said.

Perhaps one of the most important roles MSU Extension’s health and nutrition experts played early in the pandemic was to deliver reliable, research-based information that people could trust. Just weeks into the pandemic, MSU Extension’s food safety team got right to work creating a series of educational videos on hot topics swirling with misinformation, such as safe grocery shopping and food sanitization practices.

“Consumers had many questions about how to safely grocery shop and handle foods at home, and there was a lot of misinformation posted on social media sites,” Beth Waitrovich, MSU Extension food safety educator said. “The videos we created provided research-based information for consumers at a time when there was a lot of anxiety about food and grocery shopping.”

As MSU Extension educators and instructors look forward to a day where they can safely gather in person with their communities once again, they are also fully committed to maintaining their successful virtual programming as well. After all, as Ali Rogers notes, you don’t have to be in person to make a difference in a person’s life.

“Even though I am 40 miles away, I am still teaching,” she said. “I might be a virtual presence, but I am still a presence in my communities.”

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