Virginia Cooperative Extension has launched a new initiative to help educate the commonwealth's citizens about the importance of good nutrition. The Master Food Volunteer program uses trained volunteers to teach nutrition concepts within their communities.

“We brought the Master Food Volunteer program to Virginia after studying a similar program in Kentucky,” said Karen Gehrt, Extension’s associate director for family and consumer sciences. “By training and organizing volunteers, our agent faculty multiply the number of people they can reach with educational programs and have a greater impact than if they were teaching the classes themselves.”

The “master volunteer” concept has been successfully used for many years by the Virginia Master Gardener program. By using a similar approach – training volunteers who then pass along the education to the public – the Master Food Volunteer program teaches citizens about nutrition and healthy eating.

Volunteers pay a small fee to undergo 30 hours of training over the course of four weeks where they learn about basic nutrition, meal planning, cooking techniques, food safety, and how to work with diverse audiences. At the completion of the training, the volunteers pledge to give back at least 30 hours of service to their communities by teaching others.

After successful completion of the training program, volunteers are able to select the venues at which they will share their newfound expertise. “Our volunteers can choose to go into the school system and teach youth about eating healthy. Or, they can choose to do health fairs, in which case they would maintain an educational exhibit with nutritional information set up to help the public,” said Beverly Samuel, a family and consumer sciences senior Extension agent for Loudoun County.

Doris Ross of Manassas, Va., completed the training and is says she excited about the volunteer possibilities ahead of her. She said, “I enjoy cooking, and I’m a frequent visitor to our local farmers market. I’ve always wondered why people pass up some of the wonderful fresh fruits and vegetables offered. I’ve thought that perhaps that was because they don’t know how to prepare them. When I saw this class advertised, I thought it would be a great way for me to volunteer my time.”

Ross is particularly interested in teaching healthy eating habits to students heading off to college. “I have two sons in college and one on his way,” she explained. “I realized that they could benefit from some information on how to use the typical dorm-room microwave and hotpot to prepare snacks and quick meals that are healthy. Hopefully, that might help them avoid the ‘freshman 15’ – the weight gain that many students experience in their first year of college.”

The program began in the northern area of the commonwealth, where Extension agents recently trained 29 volunteers. The agents are planning a second round of training for those volunteers this spring and summer that will cover additional topics and include a module on food preservation. Plans are also underway to expand the program from the northern region to other areas across the state.

Both Samuel and Gehrt say they agree that the well-being of Virginians has been one of the primary motivators in creating this program. “We are hoping to combat the rising risk of obesity and chronic diseases in Virginia,” Samuel said. “We want to educate on nutrition, and we use our volunteers to reach more people.”

“If we can equip volunteers to help the people in their communities develop healthy food habits, we are ultimately going to impact the health of Virginia residents,” added Gehrt.

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