Graduates of first virtual Master Food Volunteers program ready to serve Virginia communities
Virginia Cooperative Extension’s initiative that teaches ordinary Virginians to be food safety and nutrition educators had to undergo a challenging transformation in light of the pandemic, but now it’s back and better than ever.
For 10 years, the Master Food Volunteer Program has trained ordinary Virginians to serve their communities by spreading food safety and nutrition awareness with cooking demonstrations, in-school educational programs, farmers market displays, and health seminars.
Transitioning an Extension program designed entirely around hands-on community service opportunities to a COVID-safe format was no easy task. But now having graduated volunteers from its first-ever virtual class, the program’s leaders are finding their new approach is yielding positive results.
“Up to this point, the program has been all in-person, hands-on volunteer training, and we’ve always prided ourselves in that,” said Melissa Chase, state coordinator for the Master Food Volunteers and Consumer Food Safety Program manager in Virginia Tech’s Department of Food Science and Technology. “So, when the pandemic happened, we realized we were going to have to move very quickly and do something different with our training if we were going to keep it viable.”
The Master Food Volunteer Program was started to help expand Virginia Cooperative Extension’s nutrition and health outreach efforts to more Virginians. The program recruits volunteers in each county where it operates to complete a 30-hour course designed to teach them food and kitchen safety, nutrition, food prep and cooking techniques, physical activity, and the skills to effectively communicate their newfound knowledge to a diverse audience. Once their training is complete, participants are assigned a supervising Virginia Cooperative Extension agent to help them identify service opportunities that match their skillset and are required to complete at least 30 hours of community service within their first year of graduating.
When COVID forced the state into a lockdown last spring, it immediately became apparent to program leaders that drastic changes would have to be made if they were to continue training volunteers. Food preparation and sanitation had instantly become in-demand skills, but the program could no longer teach volunteers the way it always had.
“A significant challenge we faced was how to ensure that the experience of looking at a screen was still engaging,” said Associate Extension Agent Stuart Vermaak, who oversees the Master Food Volunteers’ Loudon County program. “It was the in-person aspects that volunteers pointed to during program evaluations as the most enjoyable component of the training, so the training team made a strategic effort to ensure that there were as many interactive and hands-on opportunities as possible during the virtual training.”
To achieve this, the team decided on a hybrid approach that consisted of eight weeks of self-paced learning modules and weekly Zoom sessions. The self-paced lessons covered necessary scientific information and included quizzes, recorded presentations, and activities for the volunteers to try on their own. All demonstrations and group work took place via Zoom.
Extension Agent Katie Strong turned her kitchen into an almost TV-quality cooking studio where she gave volunteers a live demonstration in knife skills. Trainees were challenged to create their own meal plan to test on their next grocery run and then report their cost savings to the group. They were shown live how to use a food thermometer to ensure proper cooking temperature and created video presentations of their own demonstrating how to use their favorite kitchen gadget. They took breaks during Zoom meetings to stretch and chat together as a class.
For the duration of their first course, the agents weren’t sure they’d been able to digitally re-create the classroom atmosphere and experiential style that made their training so effective in the past. But in November 2020, the first-ever group of virtual trainees had successfully completed the course. Shortly after, program leaders met with the newly minted Master Food Volunteers to hear their experiences with the new class format, and the response they received was better than they could have hoped.
“I went into this thinking, ‘be gracious because it’s the first time they’re doing this and there will be glitches,’” said volunteer Dawn Matson. “But it just seemed that everything ran smoothly. It’s all interesting, and I’m having a great time!”
Mary Johnson, another volunteer, chimed in, “When I was doing the pilot, my observation was that whether this works or fails will hang on the quality of the instructors and their enthusiasm and the way they present the material, and everyone has just done a fabulous job.”
The response was so positive, Chase said they are now planning to continue with some variation of the online format even after COVID restrictions are lifted, perhaps as a mix of in-person and virtual classes, as it offers limitless flexibility in what material is covered and opens the program up to a much wider audience.
“There are people who can participate who haven’t been able to before,” said Chase. “By doing self-paced modules at home, people with children can do more in the evenings, and people who work full time can attend class without having to take time off.”
Planning is currently underway for the second virtual Master Food Volunteer class, which will be available for volunteers in the Northern Virginia region later in 2021. For more information on the program, including regional availability and how to join, visit the Master Food Volunteer’s webpage or contact Melissa Chase at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Written by Alex Hood