Nutrition education program celebrates 50 years of service
COLUMBIA — The world’s most famous doctor, Hippocrates, prescribed more than 2,000 years ago that people “search out the food befitting their nature.”
That’s nutrition in a nutshell.
Were he with us today Hippocrates doubtless would be celebrating the 50th anniversary of an important organization with a funny name: EFNEP.
Created in the 1960s to promote health among the nation’s most vulnerable — low-resource families with children — the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) teaches participants how to budget their food dollars to increase food security and diet quality. By addressing barriers to health and healthy eating, the program helps people gain the knowledge and, most importantly, the desire to adopt a nutritious diet and healthy lifestyle.
“The desire and willingness to change behavior is key,” said Tarana Khan, South Carolina’s coordinator for EFNEP, which is part of the Clemson University Extension Service and based at the Sandhill Research and Education Center in Columbia. “People must want to change their habits before they will adopt new ones, even when they know those new lifestyles are so important to their health.
“We stress not only the knowledge and skills necessary to understand and use nutrition information, but also the strategies needed for behavior changes that will promote healthy food choices,” Khan said.
“EFNEP’s success is rooted in participant trust,” said Michelle Parisi, who directs the nutrition and health program for Clemson Extension.. “Participants trust our program educators and they trust the Extension system. Community members open their doors to EFNEP educators because they are passionate, active members of their own communities.
“We recruit and hire educators from the communities they serve. They are strong, service-minded people with the ability to connect with others,” she said. “Our educators have ‘walked in’ their participant’s shoes and have the passion and commitment to helping others find ways to manage their own and their family’s health needs. They are the bridge between the university and their own community.”
Clemson Extension offices have brought research-based information in food and agriculture to South Carolina communities for more than a century, earning the trust of residents. “EFNEP was made part of the Extension Service in 1969 because it addressed a similar mission: to provide scientifically valid nutrition and health information to South Carolina community members while addressing the health barriers associated with food insecurity,” she said.
This trust has made EFNEP an influential resource in disadvantaged communities, Parisi said. After 50 years, EFNEP continues to fulfill its mission of helping participants gain knowledge in nutrition and health by combatting food insecurity, a well-known health barrier.
In the Palmetto State, EFNEP places an emphasis on parents and other adult caregivers who have primary responsibilities of feeding young children. They also have specialized programs for moms-to-be and new parents and a youth component for ages 5 through 19.
It’s important, Khan says, to reach young people because, “biologically, nutrition is crucial for healthy development; the children are the pillar of our future nation.”
The phrase, “you are what you eat” isn’t merely true. It’s literally true. Nutrients from the foods you eat become the working parts of every cell in your body, from your skin and bones to your muscles, organs and immune system.
As anyone with diabetes or high blood pressure can tell you, what you eat can hurt you or it can help you. Good nutrition is no harder to achieve than bad nutrition, but for families with limited means it often requires especially careful attention.
“The American fast-food, processed-food lifestyle is particularly difficult on people with limited resources,” Khan said. “High rates of diseases like diabetes and hypertension among disadvantaged communities can be traced in very large part to poor nutrition, so we help each family learn to get the biggest nutritional bang for the buck.”
That’s why EFNEP peer educators provide tailored lessons on diet quality, physical activity, food resource management, food safety and food security to meet the specific needs of their clients. Like other Extension Service programs, their instruction combines a hands-on learning experience that allows program participants to put knowledge to work quickly.
In 2018, EFNEP in South Carolina provided nutrition education to 5,225 youth and 934 family members. Of those adult participants, more than 77 percent showed improvement in food resource management practices — such as planning meals, comparing food prices and sticking to a food budget — and more than 93 percent improved in nutrition practices.
“Every bite you eat is another opportunity to make a positive contribution to your own body,” Khan said. “Nutrition doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be as simple as thinking twice about eating and drinking products packed with sugar and salt. Our nutrition educators also educate participants about making healthy food choices, understanding nutrition labels, choosing the right portions of food and the importance of eating breakfast.
“But the greatest impact that EFNEP educators have on participants is to help them change behavior for themselves,” she said. “They follow a research-based learning model that allows them to reach people effectively. Most importantly, they are the members of the community they support and are invested in encouraging and influencing changes in behavior that will have a positive impact on the lives of those they reach and teach.”
EFNEP will hold special events throughout the year to celebrate with partners, participants, volunteers and educators in the communities it serves.
“The celebration will provide us the opportunity not only to reflect and recognize many significant accomplishments and impacts EFNEP had on individuals and families throughout the years, but also to look forward to many more years and reaffirm our commitment to serve the community, families, youth and children,” Khan said.
For more information on EFNEP and other Extension rural health and nutrition programs visit their website or contact your county Extension office.