Across North Carolina, NC State Extension stands in the gap between high tech and high touch for the state’s citizens. Providing services to all 100 counties in “normal” times takes the tireless efforts of hundreds of NC State Extension workers. Add in the COVID-19 pandemic, and what Extension accomplishes from the mountains to the coast is nothing short of amazing.
“The role of connector is absolutely vital, and that role has expanded for us during this pandemic,” said Kathy Williams, Extension director in Wake County. “Our linkages with research-based information; our access to technology and ability to build the capacity of those we serve; and our deep commitment to be out there with and among those people, who are often forgotten by broader systems of support, has never been more important.”
The Shift to Digital
Just as classes at NC State shifted online in March, NC State Extension shifted to mainly digital programming in the spring. These virtual events — including farm visits, research trials and more — have proven vital to the farmers and the agriculture industry as the pandemic has run through the entire peak agriculture season for much of the state.
NC State Extension’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Program has recorded lessons to enrich elementary school virtual learning experiences and helped ensure children continue to have access to health and nutrition education.
When COVID-19 was identified as a pandemic, NC State Extension’s food safety team quickly began the process of researching and creating resources to address ever-increasing food safety concerns. Team members have led and participated in over 70 webinars, conducted over 400 media interviews resulting in over 950 media stories quoting team members, and created over 150 educational resources in four languages for the food industry to manage COVID-19.
Additionally, the Extension COVID-19 Resources and Information website was launched as a one-stop-shop to highlight timely resources and help North Carolinians adjust to their “new normal.” The website highlights research-based information to help farmers, agribusinesses, individuals, families and community leaders address the many COVID-19 challenges.
Serving Schools and Children
One major area of concern that has been brought to the forefront during the COVID-19 pandemic is food insecurity. With schools moving to online instruction, many worried about severely reduced access to nutritious food for children who depended on free and reduced-cost breakfasts and lunches provided by schools.
In Wake County, Extension agents helped connect food producers and vendors to nonprofits and families in need to ensure equitable distribution of food items. The Wake Child and Family Food Relief team helped map out distributions, compare them to economic vulnerability and economic health indices, and coordinate efforts with local food pantries and food banks. This has resulted in more than 70,000 produce boxes provided to families through the USDA Farmers to Families program. Program volunteers also helped to create a food resource locator app to help NC State Extension partners, staff and families find food.
“Through September, cumulative totals from efforts coordinated with the Wake County Public School System, area food banks and community food hub partners is outstanding,” said Williams. “We’ve served more than 4 million meals to those in need, from more than 202 distribution locations.”
Each year, North Carolina agriculture depends on between 70,000 to 80,000 farmworkers to harvest various crops around the state. These workers are often in housing that requires communal living conditions, which makes the spread of COVID-19 much easier.
“Extension, along with many other state and local agencies, have worked together to try to stop the spread among workers and in housing with outbreaks,” said Roberto Rosales, an Extension farmworker health and safety educator for Wilson, Nash and Edgecombe Counties. “We’ve assisted in distributing personal protective equipment (PPE) to employers and workers, including almost 1 million masks. We’ve also provided COVID-19-related education to both workers and employers, in person and via videos, and provided resources to find alternative housing in some cases.”
These efforts are being conducted in North Carolina’s mountain region as well, where three major PPE distributions have reached nearly 2,000 farmworkers. Educational materials in English and Spanish, along with socially distanced training, have been provided to educate Christmas tree growers and farmworkers on how to properly protect themselves.
“Extension has been involved in getting Christmas tree farmers and farmworkers classified as essential critical infrastructure because here in the mountains it is the number one economic industry in multiple counties,” said Travis Birdsell, Extension director in Ashe County. “We have reviewed and provided feedback on executive orders and are currently helping to coordinate mass testing as we welcome new guest farm workers to our area for Christmas tree harvest season. At the end of the day, this is still part of our mission of supporting profitable and sustainable agricultural systems. It has also provided the opportunity to educate many government officials about agriculture and the world of farming.”
NC State Extension is also helping support North Carolina’s $21.4 billion restaurant industry, which accounts for nearly 500,000 jobs (roughly 11% of employment in the state). To bolster a plan for reopening the industry, NC State Extension partnered with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association and Visit NC to launch the “Count On Me NC” program.
This program, which debuted in May, equips restaurant personnel with the knowledge they need to successfully operate within COVID-19 restrictions. Free courses are available online that provide information on guidelines and restaurants’ roles in preventing further COVID-19 spread.
From expanded virtual offerings to in-person services, NC State Extension has continued to achieve its mission of serving the state’s citizens, even in the toughest of situations. Helping navigate the needs presented by farming-related training, food security, farmworker safety, education and more position Extension for growth in the future.
“We become a trusted source of information because we care about others’ problems and help them find solutions. Ask any person in Extension’s Ashe County center why they work here and they will tell you, ‘Because I want to make a difference in people’s lives,’” said Birdsell. “This is what truly makes NC State Extension special and unique. It’s also what excites me day in and day out: working for my alma mater, helping others, and now providing some hope to others that they aren’t alone during a pandemic.”