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Virginia Cooperative Extension assists with digital divide educational challenges

By Max Esterhuizen

virginia cooperative extensionVirginia Cooperative Extension and the Virginia Family Nutrition Program are utilizing a tried and true method of communication to educate and assist members of the community: the telephone.

Food security continues to be a major concern among lower-income households, as well as households impacted by loss or reduced employment due to COVID-19, and the Family Nutrition Program is helping families by providing phone education on a variety of topics, including shopping with fewer options, shelf-stable foods, food storage guidelines, and more.

“We observed that people were losing their jobs, signing up for SNAP and unemployment, and facing food insecurity – perhaps for the first time. We also recognized that many people are facing stressors from changes in their jobs, having children at home, and fears about contracting the virus. They may not be interested in attending a series of classes, but may be interested in learning what they needed at that moment without a huge investment of their time,” said Elena Serrano, director of the Virginia Family Nutrition Program and a professor in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Callers to the phone education program at 888-814-7627 will be directed to someone local who would be able to provide assistance. So far, around 20 employees of the Virginia Family Nutrition Program have fielded calls from around the state.

Another factor in the delivery method was assisting an additional segment of the population with limited or no internet access, which is more prevalent in rural areas. The goal is to help individuals solve their immediate food security-related concerns, such as finding emergency food sources and helping individuals maximize their food budget.

Some lower-income households experience difficulty accessing digital learning opportunities, such as webinars or video conferencing. Based on figures from February 2019, 92 percent of households with incomes greater than $75,000 had broadband access, whereas only 56 percent of households with incomes $30,000 or less had it. Additionally, 3 in 10 low-income adults do not own smartphones, according to the Pew Research Center.

“We are a very nimble organization. We focus on what our commonwealth needs and then respond accordingly. We reach Virginians where they are at — content- and technology-wise,” Serrano said.

The sessions are not pre-recorded — they are done live when someone calls  — and are driven by their individual needs. To further assist citizens of the commonwealth, all topics are available in both Spanish and English.

The complete list of topics is:

  • Shopping with limited options.
  • Shelf-stable foods.
  • Food storage guidelines.
  • Food inventory.
  • Using a grocery list.
  • Easy lunches for you and your kids.
  • Getting children involved in food preparation and cooking.
  • Referrals to food assistance programs.

To participate in the phone education program, call toll-free at 888-814-7627 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. or email to schedule a time.

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