20 Questions: Nurturing Northern New York

Nutrition Program Manager at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County April Bennett poses for a portrait inside the cooperative’s office kitchen in Watertown.

April Bennett returned to the north country with a mission to connect her community with health and wellness through nutrition. She has accomplished this at CCE of Jefferson County and continues to educate young and old, sharing her passion. NNY Business sat down with Bennett to talk food, programming, education and more. 

NNYB: How did you know that nutrition education was what you wanted to focus your career on?  

BENNETT: I’ve always been interested in food just in general, but the more and more that I started going down that field I was interested in the quality of food. I decided to choose a culinary school that would have that kind of a focus, so I went to Health Supportive Culinary school and just got very passionate about local food and high-quality food and making sure people know where their food comes from. And the more I kind of went down that path, the more I realized that that’s just not the norm, that most people don’t know where their food comes from and that there’s a real need for education there. Also just how that impacts our health; so it just seems like the more I learned the more I realized that there’s a need for other people to learn more about that.    

NNYB: You said you came home after being in New Orleans. How did you find Cornell Cooperative Extension?  

BENNETT: It was the place that everybody recommended to me, saying if you are looking for someplace to work, they do what you do; they are your people. So everybody kind of said that to me, and fortunately, you know I have a lot of family that works in the nonprofit sector here, and so they were able to kind of say, “oh you should talk to Cathy Moore, you should come to CCE.” So, I started as a volunteer here, they were doing some local food initiatives and trying to work on like Farm to School type of things, which is what I had been working on. So I worked as a volunteer first, and then when a position opened in nutrition I jumped on it and interviewed and was fortunate enough to get hired.    

NNYB: What is the mission of cooperative extension and how does that influence your work within the community?   

BENNETT: One of the things that I love about working here is that it’s so diverse. I mean the mission is really all about providing people with the education and the resources that they need to live their best lives, but that means a lot of different things for a lot of different people, so you know we get to help farmers, we get to help connect people to food, we get to work with kids in schools, we help support military families. And what I love is where all those things sort of intersect so sometimes we tend to work in our own little departments, but where I find the most fun and engagement is where all those things kind of come together. So when does where our food comes from and working with kids and health and wellness where do they kind of intersect and how can we bring those resources together? And I think we’re starting to see more and more of those opportunities are coming about I find myself working with Sue in the horticulture department, working on community and school gardens now; I’m even working with the ag team on different local food initiatives; I’ve been working with 4-H, with other after-school programs, kind of connecting them to some other resources we have and nutrition. So that’s been really fun and now we’ve got the Taste New York store, so finding ways to incorporate where our food comes from and where you can source it have another great resource.    

NNYB: What are some of the initiatives that are happening currently right now at Cornell Cooperative Extension and your nutrition department?  

BENNETT: In the nutrition department right now we, we are still working on SNAP so we’re really focusing on helping the most vulnerable populations get access to high-quality food and education about what that means. So how can they make healthy food choices? We work closely with a parenting department still to just help support families, so that they can make healthy choices for themselves and for their kids. And we have a really strong partnership with Fort Drum right now so I’ve been teaching monthly cooking classes out at Fort Drum which have been really fun; we have a different theme and a different target audience every month. And now we have a new series for families where each week we’re doing classes at the youth center, but they’re really focused on military families. So, that’s been really fun.    

NNYB: Where does the funding come from to support your programming or educational programming? 

BENNETT: Our funding comes from a variety of places, particularly in nutrition; we’re kind of sliced up like a little pie, but we do get a lot of funding, federal funding, through SNAP Ed, as well as the expanded food nutrition education program, so both of those are our two major grants. We also have state grant through LIFT, and through the Fort Drum Regional Health Planning Organization that’s allowing us to do some of our environmental work which I head up. So helping the community make spaces easier for people to make healthy choices. And then we have some because of our partnership with Fort Drum; we have some funding there.   

NNYB: When you go to the farmers market here in Watertown you see the SNAP benefits. Can you define and explain that to everyone?   

BENNETT: Sure, so it’s SNAP, which we used to call food stamps and we call it EBT; we keep having different kind of name changes, but that’s the program that helps support, low-income individuals and families to make sure that they have access to food. And then our goal is to ensure that when they get that resource that they can use it for the best purposes, so that they can stretch those dollars to be able to get as much food as their family’s going to need, and that they’re going to get good, quality, healthy food with that resource. It’s great that now they can use it at the grocery store, they can use it at the farmers market.   

NNYB: Some of your programing includes hands-on learning experiences. What is the importance of being able to have that hands-on learning experience with adults and children?   

BENNETT: Everybody learns differently. All of us do, but I think if you ask people how they learn, or the things that they know, how they learn the best is usually by doing. We can tell people what to do and how to do it all day long, but until they can experience it for themselves and experience it alongside us, they’re not going to internalize that or see how easy it is to make those changes. And then also I think just when we’re doing things together and we’re engaged, people are more apt to tell you their story. So we find out a lot more about how we can help people by putting them in a place where they’re most comfortable and I think people are always comfortable around food.    

NNYB: Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County has taken marketing for the nutrition department program to the next level in terms of doing some new media stuff. Can you talk a little bit about the videos that you guys are producing and why that is so important to help spread your message?   

BENNETT: We’re finding in modern times people learn things differently and we love to be able to meet with every single person face-to-face, but that’s not always realistic for the families that we work with who are busy. We’re all busy, so we’re trying to think of innovative ways to get education to our target audience. Social media is a great platform for that. Not everybody can get to one of our classes or our workshops or knows how to access us that way. But if they can see a quick video on Facebook that shows them how to measure, how to make a simple healthy recipe and they can see how easy it is, then they are going to be able to take that information and run with it. Then they might be able to come back and see us; they want to come to one of our classes. It’s been a great way to connect with a larger audience for us.   

NNYB: Youth education in terms of nutrition has been a staple for the 4-H program here at Cornell Cooperative Extension. What are you guys doing now in the classrooms or with the after-school programs to instill that sense of what good food is?   

BENNETT: We held a training, earlier this year with all of the 4-H after-school educators that utilize the Choose Health Food, Fun and Fitness curriculum, which has been a staple in 4-H nutrition for a long time. And so we wanted to make sure that they understood how to use that curriculum, how to use all of the recipes and how to engage the students in that program. So we held a program this winter with that; we’re also now we’re part of the 4-H orientation.  So, when an educator comes on board, we will go and make sure that they have all the resources they need. If they want to do cooking with kids, we think that’s wonderful, and we want to make sure they do the healthiest cooking possible. So we will kind of make sure they know what resources they can access through nutrition or that are available to help them with their classes and things like that. And then we’ve just been doing a lot more collaboration in general, thinking about ways that we can kind of overlap that programming, since we do share a lot of resources.    

NNYB: What are some of the challenges that the nutrition program faces?   

BENNETT: I think one of our challenges is that it’s hard to get people’s time, so we’re competing with people’s time for lots of different things. And we totally understand that. So just trying to figure out how we can give people the most amount of information that they can put into practice in a way that’s going to work for their modern lifestyle – I think that’s always a challenge for us. Another challenge we face is that we want to help everyone. Nutrition affects everybody regardless of income, regardless of age, regardless of whether you’re caring for kids or caring for yourself, and sometimes it’s challenging to figure out how we can connect every person to the resources, but that’s been a big mission of ours and nutrition: to not say no, and whenever possible, there’s always a way we can help somebody, and then still fulfill our mission to our grant holders. I think that’s always a challenge; just trying to figure out how we can get the resources to the people that need the most.    

NNYB: The parenting program has always been a very strong program at Cornell Cooperative Extension for many reasons. How has the nutrition program been integrated into parenting education?   

BENNETT: I love that, that we work so closely together, parenting and nutrition, because there’s such a big overlap. A big part of being a parent is helping your kids make healthy choices and nutrition is a big piece of that. So we share resources all the time, we collaborate on training, we have a nutrition curriculum “Healthy Children Healthy Families” and we were just talking this week about making sure that our parenting staff know about that resource. We share referrals, so if someone comes to us and may need some help with life skills and then we find out that they may have some challenges with nutrition and food, then we make sure that we always refer to each other so that we can give them all the help that they need.   

NNYB: How has nutritional education changed over the years? Has the curriculum or the message changed?   

BENNETT: I really think that most of our nutrition message has stayed pretty consistent. What’s changed is the amount of information-like overload that I think people experience on a regular basis. People want there to be a new magic bullet for how are we going to be healthy. And then they are sometimes a little surprised to know that it’s still: eat more fruits and vegetables, move more, drink water; that hasn’t changed in generations. What I think that’s changed is our environment. So putting that into practice has gotten a lot harder; we’re inundated with more sugary beverage choices, we are more sedentary, we drive everywhere, so our environment has changed even though the way in which we want to be healthy and stay the same. So now we’ve got to work on the environment, we have to work on ways to make it easier for people to actually do those healthy choices.   

NNYB: What is the most important message, in your personal opinion, that Cornell Cooperative Extension works to provide the community, specifically for the nutrition program?   

BENNETT: I think our message is simple: eat more fruits and veggies, move more, drink more water. It’s never too late to start putting those things into practice. And it’s not just about us and our personal responsibility, but us as a community; how do we make our community a healthier community and that’s going to take all of us working together. It’s not going to be just working with that one individual – it’s a collective effort.   

NNYB: The agricultural program at Cornell is obviously a very strong program – it’s what Cornell was founded on with the nutrition program and the Master Gardeners program and the ag program. What are some new things the organization is doing here in the community to, again, bring where your food comes from to the forefront of the community?   

BENNETT: I think a couple of projects where we really intersected recently have been local food initiatives. Working on a food hub or just working on getting people closer to their food source. Whether that’s helping farmers to be able to build their business to sell wholesale to institutions like schools and hospitals, if it’s working on the school end to help food service directors figure out how they can make more local purchases for the cafeteria, and then educating teachers, students, families about why that’s so important. That’s been a big, big focus for all of us. We are trying to find all these different ways to tighten those screws. And then there are the community gardens. We are working more closely together with the ag team to make sure that there are opportunities for people to grow food. If you’re an organization that wants to start a garden we can help you do that. And we want to help you sustain that garden, so that once it’s planted, we know that the food is going where it needs to go to help the most people and that there’s an educational component so people understand why that food is important.    

NNYB: If people want to get involved in the nutrition program or come to one of your classes, what’s the best avenue of them getting in touch with you.    

BENNETT: I would say either going to our website, ccejefferson.org, or liking our Facebook page and following Facebook, or Twitter or Instagram. Those are all ways that they can follow us on social media, but we keep all of our events updated on there, we started putting all of our workshops and classes on Facebook as events so people have a direct link to register right online. That’s probably the best way to get ahold of us. They can also just pick up the phone and call, or like a hotline, or any kind of question about nutrition, health and Wellness food. I get calls every day.  

~Interview conducted by Holly C. Boname. Edited for clarity and length to fit this space.