Virginia Tech Extension not just for farmers

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 For more than 150 years Virginia’s Land-Grant Colleges –Virginia Tech in Blacksburg for large farms and Virginia State at Petersburg in smaller acreage—have played a major role in improving food production for everyone in the Commonwealth.

Just how much education these two universities spread about both rural and urban areas was revealed by Tonya Pickett for representatives of congregations that support Salem Area Ecumenical Ministries at the recent monthly meeting.

Along with Amy Morgan of Feeding America, Pickett described four major components of Extension work. They are 4-H Youth Development, Agriculture and Natural Resources, Family and Consumer Sciences and Community Viability. Because she works in the family/consumer division, Pickett’s duties include what is now called SNAP. That used to be referred to as “food stamps” but now stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education. A major goal is to teach the cooks in households eligible for free government food to reduce use of edibles which can lead to diabetes.

Being too heavy often starts in childhood. Pickett pointed out that nearly one-third of Virginia children are overweight or obese. The figure rises to 63 percent among the state’s adults. Since many physical conditions – including heart and kidney disease as well as joint problems and social withdrawal – are the result of being too fat, Pickett and the many paid and volunteer extension workers who try to educate households are also saving taxpayer money.

An excuse for eating sweet, salty and greasy fast foods is that the healthier fresh fruits and vegetables cost too much, Pickett pointed out. The extension folk can show through free community classes that “eating smart and moving more” does work and need not break a skimpy budget.

Pickett’s SNAP program can be used at the Salem Farmers Market enabling low-income families to get a bargain when fresh local food is in season. Working in nine counties around Roanoke and in the New River Valley, she trains school cafeteria workers and said she is especially valued at schools like East Salem and Carver which have the highest percentage of pupils eligible for free lunches.

Her duties also involve medical providers like the Bradley Free Clinic in downtown Roanoke and New Horizons on Melrose Avenue Northwest. There she concentrates on encouraging patients in diets that reduce the chance for diabetes or of children growing up obese.

Extension services out of Virginia Tech reach many children, mainly in areas like Botetourt, Craig and Franklin Counties through 4-H projects. Based in the Brambleton Center are the offices of extension agents who can help a home gardener eradicate bugs and identify mysterious plants. Many adults have enjoyed becoming a Master Gardener.

Finally, Pickett briefly described the Community Viability programs. These allow Virginians concerned about their town’s growth and quality of life to learn to work together to bring about needed change.

The SAEM supporters came away with a collection of educational leaflets, some guiding them to on-line resources.

Local hunger relief

It’s a basic need: people must have nourishment to live. So, appropriately, church representatives to Salem Area Ecumenical Ministries (SAEM) began the new year hearing from two women who work for agencies that try to fulfill that need.

While a lot of products can keep bodies alive, people of all ages feel better, can be more productive and care for themselves and others if their food is not only tasty but does not contribute to poor health.

That was a basic message of Amy Morgan of the staff of Feeding America of Southwest Virginia and Tonya Pickett who travels about several Western Virginia counties as a representative of Virginia Cooperative Extension service.

Though fully separate as agencies, the common goal of feeding the hungry brings the women in contact with each other. Hearing both in one evening at the SAEM monthly educational meeting permitted about 15 who attended the gathering at College Lutheran Church a chance to learn what is being done nearby.

Speaking first, Morgan described the work of Feeding America, formerly known as the Southwest Virginia Food Bank and housed in a large warehouse on Electric Road at Roanoke Boulevard. Feeding America is eligible to receive donations of large quantities of staple food from such companies as Nabisco and Kraft because it is affiliated with a national organization, she said. Some donations come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“It’s called ‘rescue food’ because it’s perfectly fit to eat but it’s nearly at expiration date or has some other minor flaw that makes it slow to sell,” Morgan explained.

She noted that in 2016 the regional warehouse distributed 19 million pounds of food amounting to about 80 truckloads. The food was given out to the poorly fed through 150 pantries in the region. People get this food at pantries many churches maintain, at hot meal “soup kitchens” and through extra food sent home by school children whose families are eligible to get free lunches.Feeding America does not deal directly with hungry people; its food gets to them in many ways.

In the summer when children are out of school, there’s a “veggie mobile” which goes to such locations as trailer parks and public housing projects to offer fresh food to residents, Morgan noted.

Someone asked if surplus garden produce can be taken to the Salem or Abingdon warehouses. Morgan said the small amounts available that way are better given to local distribution centers such as the Salem-Roanoke County Community Food Pantry on Chapman Street off the Fourth Street By-pass.

Needs? “Money and volunteers” Morgan answered. A variety of jobs are open at the Salem warehouse which offers public tours annually. -Submitted by Frances Stebbins