URI celebrates three decades of providing nutritional help to needy

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — April 1, 1999 — While it sounds like quite a mouthful, URI’s Cooperative Extension-Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) imparts valuable nutrition lessons to needy Rhode Islanders—without taking a bigger bite out of their food budgets. The program helps families acquire the skills they need to improve their diets and health at no charge and right in their neighborhoods. The program focuses exclusively on education and is tailored specifically to the needs of limited resource families. “Since April is EFNEP’s 30th anniversary, we thought it would be fitting to celebrate our success with the Rhode Island community,” said URI’s Donna LaVallee, a licensed dietitian/nutritionist who supervises the program from URI’s Providence Campus. The program, funded by the USDA, began with 46 families in 1969. Since then, URI estimates that the program has served more than 30,000 families or about 120,000 individuals. In addition, since 1975, the University has brought the program right into schools and has taught nearly 37,500 youth. Rhode Islanders might be interested to know that the national EFNEP actually got its start right here in Rhode Island. Urban Rhode Island was chosen as one of two pilot sites in the nation. (Rural Utah was the other site.) From the success of the “Providence Project”, EFNEP was launched into all 50 states. The program’s success is due in part to its ability to change with the times, although the basic philosophy on which URI’s program has remained the same. URI trains paraprofessionals to teach nutrition, food preparation, meal planning, food safety, and budgeting to their neighbors. During the early years, trainers went into homes and taught on a one-to-one basis. Today, six trainers, many of whom have years of service, teach in group settings such as schools and often in cooperation with other agencies. URI’s extensive programming is targeted to mostly urban settings: Providence, East Providence, Central Falls, Pawtucket, Johnston, Woonsocket, Newport, Middletown, Tiverton, Little Compton, and North Kingstown. Adult participants attend group classes for four to six weeks. They learn how to stretch their food dollar while balancing the nutrition needs of their families. For example, they are shown how to make grocery lists, make maximum use of leftovers, and increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables. Over the years, societal changes have influenced what is taught. Today’s consumers have fewer cooking and shopping skills. This may be a result of the reduction of food preparation classes in schools, busier lifestyles and the increased use of convenience foods. LaVallee has found a real need to teach supermarket strategies, particularly with high profit items such as sugar coated cereals promoted continuously over the airways and single serving microwavables stocked high on the grocers’ shelves. URI began teaching youth early in the 1970’s. Children in Head Start classes through middle school in targeted neighborhoods are eligible to participate. “Kids influence the family shopping and EFNEP teaches them how to make the best food choices,” says LaVallee. They learn the food guide pyramid, the importance of breakfast, smart snacking and food safety. Hand washing is emphasized. To prove the point, participants leave their dirty fingerprints on a petri dish which then grow bacteria. Perhaps surprisingly, on average, children seem to be better informed than adults. Many, for example, can readily identify an eggplant. “The kids are open to new tastes. We’ll give them a kiwi to sample and many will add the fruit to foods they like,” said the URI nutritionist. In order to gauge the success of the program, each participant fills out pre-and post assessments. Analyzing the responses of 679 adult participants in 1998, 100 percent reported an increased consumption of one or more of the following nutrients: fiber, iron, calcium, and vitamins A, C, and B-6. At the same time, URI’s EFNEP helped participants reduce the amount of money spent weekly on food. For More Information: Donna LaVallee, 401-277-5270 Jan Sawyer, 401-874-2116