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Building Health in Pennsylvanians

U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics say nearly 1.3 million Pennsylvanians lived at risk of hunger in 2002, including 310,000 in households where someone experienced hunger-a 12 percent increase from 2001 figures.
Amy Cetrone, Director of Positive Parenting preschool childcare program, Allegheny County

Amy Cetrone, Director of Positive Parenting preschool childcare program, Allegheny County

"Most of our parents are strapped for cash, so they understand the importance of making efficient use of the foods they have. Penn State Cooperative Extension's PA NEP Program sends a nutrition educator to demonstrate ways to prepare healthy foods. We think their program is invaluable, and the kids are really appreciative. Whenever we've seen a need, Penn State has really pitched in."

Food banks and other hunger-relief organizations struggle with increasing demand, seeing last year's donors and volunteers return as this year's clients.

Our nation's No. 1 defense against hunger and malnutrition, the food stamp program, has witnessed a 35 percent drop in participation. Further, many of the hungry can't make good use of their limited food resources as fragmented families and our fast-food culture give rise to younger families that lack the basic skills to prepare healthy meals from fresh produce and commodities.

In addition, national headlines trumpeted recent deaths and illnesses due to foodborne hepatitis in western Pennsylvania. Obesity has become a serious health threat, increasing dramatically in the country in the last decade and now exceeding a prevalence of 20 percent in Pennsylvania. Tied to that increase is the state's diabetes problem, which leaped from 4-6 percent in 1997-98 to 6-8 percent in the following year.

Programs that educate, inform, and empower people to take charge of their health are taking on unprecedented importance. That's why Penn State has developed a full range of programs on nutrition and healthy living that may make the difference between fulfilled lives and a depressed community.

The Payoff

Links to good nutrition

Penn State Nutrition Links-which includes the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) and the Pennsylvania Nutrition Education Program (PA NEP)-teaches limited-income families about food safety, proper nutrition, food buying, and how to prepare tasty, healthful meals. In 2003, 79 EFNEP nutrition educators and 1,655 volunteers in 37 counties delivered services to 3,642 low-income homemakers, including 390 pregnant or breastfeeding teens, and 11,623 low-income youth. Almost 50 percent of clients were ethnic minorities and 83 percent of families had children under age 13. In 2002-03, PA NEP served 28 counties, making 201,906 indirect contacts through newsletters, inserts, and other services. Nutrition educators completed 2,351 food demonstrations and exhibits for 25,904 participants, including cooking demonstrations, food tastings, farm stand and farmers' market demonstrations, community and health fairs, and other community activities. They also presented almost 1,000 one-time nutritional consultations or individual counseling sessions, and afterschool programs that reached 550 children.

Creating Health

A partnership between Penn State Cooperative Extension and Penn State Public Broadcasting, Creating Health uses the power of television and other media to inspire sound individual decisions about health and lifestyle choices. It presents preventive health messages intended to increase people's understanding of the causes of common diseases and their knowledge of greater health-care interventions. Through 2003, the "Preventing Osteoporosis" program in the series has been shown 40 times and the "Preventing Diabetes" program has been shown 25 times on WPSX-TV, which reaches more than 1.3 million people in 29 counties throughout central Pennsylvania and southern New York. More than 100 community educational programs have been held by Penn State Cooperative Extension educators on both topics since 2002, and surveys indicated the "Preventing Diabetes" program successfully attracted the at-risk portion of the audience, with half of participants saying they had learned a moderate amount or great deal about the disease, and about 70 percent saying they were moderately or very likely to take action to stave off the disease and promote good health.

Food safety in food service

Pennsylvania regulations require most food service establishments to have at least one supervisory employee certified in mandated food safety practices-an estimated 100,000 statewide. To train these people, Penn State developed the Statewide Food Safety Certification Program, a 16-hour workshop taught at Penn State campuses throughout Pennsylvania. Since fall 2000, nearly 4,000 food service employees have completed SFSC certification, and surveys indicate that the program has a major impact on workplace food safety behaviors, increasing awareness of major food safety regulations significantly. Pennsylvania leads the nation in implementing food safety standards with Penn State's new HACCP-based food safety guidelines for mushroom growers and processors, developed in partnership with major mushroom packers and shippers in Pennsylvania and California. Surveys of food safety workshops indicate that workers' knowledge increased and that they are more likely to practice safe food handling procedures. Likewise, Penn State helped the state's apple and cider industry to develop food safety practices and HACCP principles through workshops that increased workers' knowledge of pathogenic bacteria and correct cleaning and sanitizing procedures. Penn State also offers the Sanitation Short Course, a comprehensive two-and-a-half-day program on the essentials of sanitation in food processing plants for firms developing in-house food safety programs and looking to upgrade their knowledge of the science and technology of cleaning, sanitizing, and pest control. Surveys show that 88 percent of course participants are more likely to practice proper food safety and sanitation techniques at their workplace. Another resource developed by the College of Agricultural Sciences, The Penn State Food Safety website, includes food safety and home food preservation databases, food safety and product recall news, fact sheets, brochures, books, videos, and other materials. Since 2001, the site has received nearly 200,000 visits, and average monthly visits have increased from 3,561 in 2001 to 9,462 in 2003.