CUCE-NYC’s research-backed education helps families navigate an historic crisis

Virtual meeting with EFNEP community educators and staff

In a typical year, over thirty thousand New York City residents participate in one or more of the educational programs offered by Cornell University Cooperative Extension-NYC (CUCE-NYC). With a home in the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research and administered by the College of Human Ecology in partnership with Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), CUCE-NYC offers research-based experiential learning opportunities to promote positive family and youth development and improve community health and nutrition through hands-on, in-person workshops.

While 2020 was anything but a typical year, CUCE-NYC programs continued to adapt, grow, and engage communities. When the pandemic put in-person activities on hold, program teams faced questions like: how do you teach cooking or parenting skills focused on interactive play, and support struggling community members, when you cannot be in the same room?

Two CUCE-NYC extension support specialists, Nutrition and Health Program Coordinator Natasha Ashley and Parenting Education/Early Child Development Specialist Ana M. Cañas, met the challenge in a very Human Ecology way – by asking participants what support they needed in navigating an historic crisis and responding to those needs through collaboration, innovation, and kindness.

The Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) offers low-income families, especially youth and parents of young children, small-group interactive workshops that teach research-backed nutritional information. Topics include: the importance of consuming a variety of foods, pantry-stretching recipes, strategies for managing food budgets, and the benefits of physical activity for a healthy body and mind. Workshop graduates receive a certificate from Cornell, a resume-booster for participants who have gone on to seek further education or employment in food and nutrition.

Ashley, a registered dietitian who is developing an innovative nutrition app with Weill Cornell Medicine's Clinical and Translational Science Center (CTSC), heads up the Brooklyn and Queens EFNEP program. Working with CUCE-NYC’s Nutrition and Health Program team and Program Leader Carol Parker, Ashley recruits, trains, coaches and supervises EFNEP community educators, many of whom are workshop graduates themselves.

“We give extensive training in different learning tools to the educators,” Ashley said. “We want people who already live in the communities we serve, who like to teach, who want to facilitate learning, and who have a passion for nutrition and food. They teach from a curriculum, but we encourage them to lead with their own light, so there’s always something a little different from one educator to the next.”

Throughout the pandemic, Ashley has made professional development opportunities for program educators a priority. At first the focus was learning to use unfamiliar technologies like Zoom or PowerPoint, but the team has since moved on to webinars and certificates through eCornell’s online learning program.

She said the communities her educators work in face multiple challenges to healthy eating, including habits that have been passed down from one generation to the next.

“We have this cycle of someone’s grandma having diabetes and then their mother and then them having diabetes as well,” Ashley said. “We want to help them break that cycle through better nutrition and health information and empower them to make healthier choices for themselves and their families.”

Just as unhealthy habits can influence the behavior of others, so too can healthy habits and practices. Ashley said she has seen the impact of the workshops spreading from one family member to the next, as something as simple as swapping out soda in favor of water with a twist of fruit results in shed pounds and improved movement and health. In other words, the impact of the program is generational. From 1999 through the first months of 2021, the program reached over 281,290 family members, with around 13,037 reached in 2019-20.

Low-income families in NYC also face limited food options in neighborhoods that might only have a convenience store or bodega and high food prices. According to City Harvest, a nonprofit organization dedicated to alleviating hunger in NYC, one in four children in NYC are experiencing food insecurity, up from one in five pre-COVID.

When the pandemic closed down in-person workshops, like so many of us, Ashley and her team took to online meetings. When they started conducting EFNEP workshops again, they initially cut the time down from two hours to thirty minutes, thinking the participants would not want, or have the time, to sit in front of the computer.

“To come on, and say, ‘Hi, I'm Natasha Ashley, I know the pandemic is going on, but we have some workshops here, would you like to talk about nutrition?’ It didn't translate well, because people are grieving the loss of family members, people are sick or frontline workers who are exhausted, or had been laid off or furloughed. It made us rethink our marketing, rethink just being human.”

Ashley and the EFNEP educators began calling participants to check in, ask how they were doing and what they needed. Soon the thirty-minute sessions were not long enough and now the workshop is back to two hours that feel like a community of people coming together to support each other. When participants shared struggles with parenting issues, Ashley saw the opportunity to draw on the expertise of CUCE-NYC’s Parenting Education team. She reached out to Cañas to develop linkages between the workshops offered by EFNEP and the Parenting Education programs.

In addition to co-facilitating workshops with Parenting Education Program Coordinator Luis Almeyda, Cañas works closely with Professor of Human Development Marianella Casasola to translate Casasola's research on early childhood skills development and language acquisition into a new parenting curriculum. The resulting program, Growing and Learning Together Through Play (GLTTP), offers parenting education to parents and caregivers of children ages 2-5.

“The opportunity and achievement gap for children in low-income communities is seen as early as kindergarten,” Cañas said. “Play is so important at this stage of development and the research has shown that play is a tool that children use to communicate, to express their thoughts and feelings. This makes it an opportunity to help them expand their language, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.”

Prior to devoting her time to implementing GLTTP, Cañas participated in Casasola’s research into the ways in which parental beliefs about play, creativity, and school readiness were reflected in what they did with their children, and how they spoke with them, during a play session. Casasola’s research has found, for example, that the type of language parents use in interacting with their children, particularly around spatial language, helps children build STEM-related spatial skills.

Cañas said collaborating with Casasola paved the way for the GLTTP program and gave her the opportunity to hear from parents on what works for them in preparing their children for school, while collecting valuable data about parent-child interactions as a way to promote learning. Cañas calls GLTTP a living curriculum, because the framework is revised and refined as research advances, and through collaboration and feedback from participants.

“I love the translational process in social sciences, because it seeks community participation and opens the door for a new type of work that is collaborative. It’s not just the expert bringing the knowledge, but working with people in the community to build knowledge together. The College has incredible resources and the ability to address real-world conditions in partnership with these communities. In my experience with Human Ecology researchers and Weill Cornell Medicine’s CTSC, that’s always been the aim.”

Casasola said her research has benefitted from the strong connections with CUCE-NYC and CCE.

“These partnerships have not only provided valuable opportunities to engage with a greater diversity of families with young children, they have informed how we frame the studies and allowed our research to affect lives in a manner that isn’t otherwise possible,” Casasola said. “Our partnership offers a unique synergy between research and supporting families. We are better able to conduct research whose findings can have an impact on the well-being of families and the learning and development of young children.”

Before the pandemic started, Cañas was working with three early childhood centers in the Lower East Side, Bushwick and Harlem to implement the program. When programming went remote, GLTTP was briefly put on hold until Ashley reached out.

When Ashley and the EFNEP educators she coordinates opened up space in the nutrition workshops for participants to talk about their experiences in a global crisis and struggles with parenting, the question of how to cope with fear and uncertainty was a frequent refrain. With so much stress heaped on to the inherent stress of managing on low incomes, high costs of living, food insecurity and employment precarity, the participants needed a place to voice their concerns without judgement.

“I will never forget this one parent who said at the end of a workshop, ‘thank you so much for providing this space, because these workshops are helping me not hurt my child,’” Cañas recalled. “And something like that, I think, sends a big message. The way we opened the door to do this work during a very difficult time was to listen to what they needed and provide that support.”

Cañas explained that the parents and caregivers she works with often talk about their past experiences and the way they were raised in relation to the material she presents and their reasons for attending the workshops.

“We learn to parent through the model of our parents and there's a tendency to repeat what we learned from them. Something that comes up a lot in conversations with parents is that they're struggling with how they are brought up, they recognize that in some ways they either do the same as what was done to them, or they realize it and then they say, ‘No, I want to do things differently, because I did not like how that made me feel growing up.’ They want to break that cycle.”

Ashley and Cañas see their collaboration as a silver lining in a trying time. Working from home, holding meetings online, has allowed more cross-pollination between CUCE-NYC programs, while providing staff much-needed support and camaraderie. As pandemic precautions ease, many of the innovations prompted by the crisis will stay in place and continue to develop.

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