Heather Cook, the Family Nutrition Program's first online-only educator, teaches a Teen Cuisine class over Zoom.
The COVID-19 pandemic left every organization scrambling to adapt to the “new normal.” But for the West Virginia University Extension Family Nutrition Program, shifting to remote work presented a few unique challenges.
The Family Nutrition Program delivers nutrition education to thousands of people every year in community centers, churches, day report centers and schools all over West Virginia.
Until the pandemic, all that education occurred face-to-face — an instructor might spend their morning teaching kids proper knife skills, then the afternoon working with another school to establish an on-site vegetable garden. Other days, they might set up a “Rethink Your Drink” display at a local health fair to teach attendees how much sugar is in their favorite beverage and offer a healthier alternative.
In the early days of the pandemic though, there was no way to safely continue that person-to-person education. And yet the knowledge Family Nutrition Program educators had to share became more important than ever.
“We teach families how to cook healthy, save money at the grocery store and incorporate more physical activity into their day lives,” said Gina Wood, Extension specialist and Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) coordinator with the WVU Extension Service Family Nutrition Program. “Well, during lockdowns, many of us were stuck at home and cooking all our own meals. And if that wasn’t difficult enough, we then saw grocery shortages and an increase in food prices.”
So, FNP staff began making cooking videos at home — demonstrating simple, nutritious and cost-effective recipes on the Family Nutrition Program’s YouTube channel and Facebook page. Then, as the world learned to use Zoom for everything from business meetings to cocktail hours, FNP educators began to teach their lessons online.
This mirrored a larger trend in education of students receiving lessons at their kitchen tables via video conferencing. But it wasn’t just school kids FNP educators were reaching — entire families joined for lessons about food safety, healthy eating and physical activity.
“It was clear that this was a solution to a problem the Family Nutrition Program has been trying to figure out for a long time,” said Kristin McCartney, Extension specialist and SNAP-Ed director for the WVU Extension Service Family Nutrition Program. “Our program is geared to serve low-income families with children. But many low-income families struggle with transportation, and even families with reliable transportation have a difficult time fitting classes into their busy work and childcare schedules.”
Serving these families with remote classes, taught right in their homes, overcame some of these hurdles. It was not a universal solution — limited Internet access in many parts of the state prevented educators from reaching lots of West Virginians — but these classes still reached previously unreachable students.
So, as the pandemic eased and educators could return to classrooms, educators continued providing online education. And in 2023, the Family Nutrition Program hired Heather Cook as its first online-only educator.
Cook started working for FNP as an adult health educator in 2013. And like many of her colleagues, she shifted to online classes during the pandemic.
“It was a challenge that made me step outside the box of how we were trained to do our position,” Cook said. Although she was outside of her comfort zone, Cook found that she enjoyed online teaching. So when the opportunity arose to become a full-time online educator, she jumped at the chance.
The job allows her to interact with students all over West Virginia, not just in her immediate area. And it gives her a surprisingly close connection with those students.
“It’s much more intimate. I’m in the kitchen with them, and they’re showing me the things in their cabinets,” Cook said. “It’s opened my eyes to the limitations people have at home.”
She had one family whose stove did not work. When she found out, she started giving them no-cook recipes during classes. In another online class, she had three children with autism. People with autism often struggle with trying new foods because of sensory issues. So, Cook tried to make the process fun.
“I had one student who was always giving me a thumbs-up or thumbs-down if he didn’t like the recipe. He promised me he would try the recipe every week, even if he didn’t like it,” she said.
Ryan’s mom later emailed Cook.
“She said, ‘You have no idea how much this has helped him. He never would have done this.’” In another class, a foster family had children who suffered from severe anxiety around new places and new people. So, Cook told the family they could leave their camera and microphone off during the class.
“By the third session, they were comfortable unmuting and talking to me,” she said. “It’s been eye opening to see the families we weren’t reaching before. These are people who are isolated.”
She is now starting a “Families Cook with Teen Cuisine” class series. Usually taught in middle and high schools, Teen Cuisine teaches healthy nutrition habits, basic cooking skills and safe food handling practices, as well as ways to incorporate physical activity into your everyday life. This new digital programming allows entire families to participate and learn together.
Cook also is starting an experimental series of lessons using the “Learn, Grow, Eat & Go” curriculum, which teaches healthy eating through gardening. She isn’t hosting these classes with families at home — instead, she is working with elementary school teachers in their classrooms. Teachers will serve as facilitators, helping students with activities and taste tests, while Cook provides instruction via video chat.
She said if the experiment is successful, it would allow the Family Nutrition Program to reach schools in areas of the state that do not have health educators nearby.
“We can meet people where they are,” Cook said.
For more information about the Family Nutrition Program’s online programs, or to sign up for a class, email email@example.com.
WVU Extension Family Nutrition Program’s work is supported by the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) from the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.
WVU Extension Family Nutrition Program