These folks love food, and they love telling others about food even more. They are Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Master Food Volunteers.
Whether helping to teach a workshop on food preparation, educating children about making healthy food choices, or answering food safety questions at a farmers market, these volunteers are passionate about food.
The Master Food Volunteer Program launched in 2009 to help family and consumer science Extension agents reach more Virginians with information about the importance of good nutrition, healthy living, and food safety.
“According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 62 percent of adult Virginians and 20 percent of the youth are overweight or obese and at risk of chronic disease,” said Melissa Chase, state coordinator of the Master Food Volunteer Program. “There is a critical need for educating consumers to improve overall health and quality of life in Virginia. Our volunteers are helping to fill this need.”
With fewer than 30 full-time family and consumer science agents scattered across the state and the demand for nutrition and food information on the rise, their presence has been welcomed. There are more than 78 certified volunteers located throughout the state, and more volunteer training classes are scheduled in the near future.
“By training and organizing volunteers, our agents in the communities can multiply the number of people they can reach with educational programs and have a greater impact than if they were teaching the classes by themselves,” Chase said.
The “master volunteer” concept has been successfully used for many years by the Virginia Master Gardener Program. the Master Food Volunteer Program uses a similar approach — training volunteers who pass along the education to the public.
Volunteers pay a small fee to receive 30 hours of training over four weeks. They learn about basic nutrition, meal planning, cooking techniques, food safety, and how to work with diverse audiences. “While many of our volunteers come to us with a lot of experience, the research-based training ensures that the information they are sharing is based on tested and approved methods,” Chase said.
After completing the training program, volunteers can select venues where they will share their newfound expertise. Programs are customized to the needs of the communities and focused on the talents of the Extension agents and volunteers, Chase said
“Some may go into the school system and teach youth about eating healthy. Others may do demonstrations of safe preparation and storage of local foods at farmers markets around the region. 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. The opportunities are endless,” Chase said.
“Our volunteers have a sincere interest in helping others make choices that will improve their well-being," she said. “They enjoy sharing knowledge and seeing the changes in behavior. It motivates the volunteers when they can see the impact of hard work.”
Chase said although some volunteers sign on for their personal benefit, they become hooked on the program when they see the impact their work is having in communities.
“I first started doing this to have shelf-stable foods for my family. It is important that we know how to take care of ourselves,” said Rebecca Shannon, a volunteer in Floyd County, Va. “The Master Food Volunteer Program is an outlet where I can pass on what I know to others. It is a way that I can give back to the community.”
In addition to the technical knowledge they gain, many volunteers are learning job skills including interpersonal communications, public speaking, and presentation skills that they can use in other parts of their lives.
“Many of our volunteers are doing things they have never done before. These activities help promote personal growth,” Chase said.
Shannon said she enjoys helping others to help themselves. “We can give a family a sack of food and they'll eat for a week. But if we teach them how to garden and cook and preserve, they will be able to feed themselves forever. That’s why I volunteer.”
Watch a video of one of the training programs and hear from its volunteers.
Read about the Extension volunteer programs in this article from Outreach Now.
Virginia Cooperative Extension has publications available on a variety of kitchen topics, such as
What started with a conversation about how to improve a 4-H camp’s food has evolved into an integrated program that teaches kids about food, nutrition, and exercise and benefits the local economy.
Take a look back at previous Spotlight features in our archive.