A few months ago, I wrote about why libraries are such a great, free resource for home cooks. Consider this the companion piece, because there’s another invaluable service I want to make sure you know about: extension.
Julie Garden-Robinson, vice president for awards and recognition at the National Extension Association of Family & Consumer Sciences, says people in her line of work call themselves “the best-kept secret. We don’t want to be a secret. We want people to access our resources.”
Formally established by an act of Congress in 1914, extension programs are based at land-grant colleges and universities and tasked with providing nonformal, research-based education to agricultural producers, business owners and the general public on a wide variety of topics, from parenting and gardening to cooking and food safety.
“There’s really something for everyone,” says Shauna Henley, a family and consumer sciences senior agent with the University of Maryland Extension, Baltimore County.
That has continued to evolve especially since last year. “We had to really flex and change during the pandemic,” says Garden-Robinson, an extension food and nutrition specialist at North Dakota State University. Extension programs have risen to meet the needs of people more interested in gardening, preserving and cooking at home in the past 14 months. Much of that outreach has come in the form of social media posts and other online programs, including classes. Plenty saw last year’s fiasco at Bon Appétit, in which host Brad Leone demonstrated in a now-deleted video how to water-bath canned seafood (which you should never do), as a sort of call to arms — and a perfect example of why dependable, science-based education is so necessary.
Here’s a rundown of what extension can do for you.
— Serve as a reliable information source: Anyone who has ever done an online search knows how much bad advice there is out there. When it comes to food, it may not just be bad, says Sue Mosbacher, a master food preserver program coordinator for the University of California Cooperative Extension, it could be unsafe.
— Provide affordable education: Most extension resources are free or low-cost. Those that do require a fee are often just to cover the cost of materials, such as for a canning class, Mosbacher says. One of my favorite extension offerings is the boring-sounding but infinitely practical fact sheet. Henley says part of her task is to try to find topic areas that haven’t been covered so that she can produce fact sheets, which may be catered to her local audience. Can’t find what you’re looking for? Just ask.
— Help you be a better, safer and healthier home cook. Want to know what to plant in your backyard or container garden? Consult a master gardener. Many extension employees and volunteers are avid cooks who like to test and swap recipes, Mosbacher says.
— Give you your next volunteer opportunity. Volunteers on the local level (typically by county) are often the ones offering classes to the public or even, at least pre-pandemic, holding office hours and answering questions via email and phone. Those in Mosbacher’s program, for example, must undergo 18 weeks of class and hands-on training. If you’re someone who likes to make a difference in your community, consider reaching out to extension.