A Healthy Habits Teen Ambassador shows off a plate of oatmeal breakfast cookies, which she helped bake during a virtual cooking demonstration.

GREENSBORO, NC – It takes more than a global pandemic to keep Extension staff at North Carolina A&T State University from providing their audiences with important information and skills to better their lives.

By combining their own creativity with streaming technologies such as the Zoom platform for teleconferencing and distance learning, Extension staff have brought people together for learning, hands-on demonstrations, and plain old fun to help them stay healthy, active, and engaged throughout a year of quarantines and social distancing.

A prime example is Healthy Habits, a program funded by the Walmart Foundation that uses teen mentors to promote healthy eating and physical exercise. In past years, the teen mentors and Extension staff have conducted programs on nutrition and wellness for youth and their families at community centers, churches and Extension centers. In 2020 and 2021, those programs moved to the Zoom platform.

This year, Healthy Habits, under the direction of Shewana Hairston McSwain, EFNEP nutrition outreach coordinator for Extension at A&T, has conducted two virtual cooking classes. The first, held in early March, featured Chef Cherisa “Cookie” Williams of Flavor 57, a catering and personal chef company in Winston-Salem. The second, held March 31, was called  Making Every Bite: Baking with Dr. Dale, and featured Extension Administrator Rosalind Dale, Ed.D., making her recipe for breakfast oatmeal cookies with assistance from three teen Healthy Habits Ambassadors. More than 70 people attended the demonstration through Zoom and another 306 people viewed it through a Facebook Live stream.

“Of course we’d rather be meeting in person, but when that’s not possible, the technology to conduct a successful virtual program is absolutely essential,” said Hairston McSwain. “Extension agents from both N.C. A&T and NC State have recruited youth for the program, and they’ve had great feedback from them. Some mentioned that it was exciting to cook with the director of Extension.”

Attendees said the March 31 class was fun as well as educational and several said they look forward to the next Healthy Habits virtual program. Kids reported learning that basic math skills are essential for successful baking and that using a spray oil keeps cookies from sticking to the baking sheet. More virtual Healthy Habits demonstrations are planned for the summer featuring Chef Williams through a collaboration with Flavor 57.

Other Extension programs have developed creative ways to fight the isolation of the pandemic and connect with youth, families and farmers. For example:

  • The 4-H program launched the 4-H Mystery Challenge program in the spring of 2020, using social media to give youth and their families the chance to participate in problem-solving activities. Twenty challenges released over two months engaged more than 300 youth and their families. The Leaders in Training (LiT) program, a structured leadership training experience for limited-resource 4-H teens, conducted its 2020 program virtually over Zoom, bringing 13 new teens into the program to join 45 others who are continuing their leadership training. Additionally, 4-H STEM Specialist Misty Blue-Terry, Ph.D., hosted a virtual training for 4-H agents across the state on the 4-H STEM Challenge Mars Base Camp. 4-H agents with A&T went on to present the program to 256 youth.
  • With many families struggling from the economic impacts of COVID-19, Family Resource Management Specialist Patrice Dollar moved staff trainings and programs for the public to the Zoom platform. Programs offered included Resources to Navigate the Pandemic, which provided information on accessing mortgage, rent, and utilities assistance.
  • Small Farms Week, one of the premier events offered by Extension at A&T, was presented in March 2021 as a full virtual program, featuring a week’s worth of live educational sessions, panel discussions, and a streamed Facebook Live event to announce the winner of the 2021 Small Farmer of the Year Award. That event featured live streams from Franklin County in eastern North Carolina and Watauga County in western North Carolina as well as recorded remarks from university and Extension administrators and Steve Troxler, the state’s commissioner of agriculture. Social media played an important role in the event, with attendees answering questions about North Carolina agriculture through Facebook and Twitter and the winners receiving prizes. Registered participants for Small Farms Week 2021 totaled 417.
  • A&T’s Regional Extension directors have used technology to ensure that student internships remain engaging through the pandemic. Using Zoom, students in the A&T College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences (CAES) have been able to virtually shadow the daily operations of a county Extension center, complete experiential learning opportunities, assist in creating a database of the state’s small farmers, and help develop technology tools to promote job opportunities with Extension at A&T.
  • The Community and Rural Development program moved its annual Grassroots Leadership Conference to Zoom in October 2020. The theme for the one-day event was Creating Equitable Solutions for Stronger Communities, and participants included local government officials, leaders of nonprofits and community groups, volunteers, and Extension staff. CRD staff also hosted a timely three-part Zoom series called Connecting the Faith: Meeting Community Needs in a Crisis. Staff partnered with state Rep. James D. Gailliard, who is also senior pastor at Word Tabernacle Church in Rocky Mount, to host the series, which focused on community partnerships and the role of faith-based organizations in meeting community needs. More than 100 participants attended the sessions.