University of Georgia Cooperative Extension develops programs that improve the quality of life and health of Georgia residents, says Associate Dean for Extension Laura Perry Johnson.

“These programs help individual Georgians live healthier, higher-quality lives, improving the overall health and well-being of our citizens. This will decrease health care costs and ultimately enhance the economy of the state in the future,” Johnson said. “We know the rural areas of our state have greater needs related to health and quality of living, and improving these statistics is a priority for UGA Extension.”

Through Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) and the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), more than 8,600 Georgians enrolled in UGA Extension-taught nutrition education classes in 2017. UGA Extension nutrition educators reached another 50,000 people directly and more than 1.3 million Georgians learned through online education programs. All of these Extension classes help families learn to prepare nutritional meals while stretching their food dollars. These classes also help save lives by also encouraging people to be physically active.

Obesity rates in Georgia are among the highest in the country. Two of Georgia’s counties — Calhoun and Taliaferro — have obesity rates higher than 40 percent. This is attributed in part to limited access to healthy foods. Taliaferro County’s 1,600 residents don’t have access to a grocery store in their county.

“When you don’t have access to fresh produce, it’s really hard to eat healthy, especially when everything you buy comes out of a box or a can,” said Denise Everson, FACS program development coordinator for UGA Extension’s Northeast District.

Two years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a grant to UGA Extension and the UGA College of Public Health to provide health and wellness education, promote physical activity, and increase access to healthier foods in both counties. The CDC is in the process of issuing a second phase of funding and has added Clay, Dooly and Stewart counties.

UGA Extension in Calhoun County helped to develop six community gardens that include 30 raised beds planted with fall and spring crops every year. Georgia 4-H staff in the area started a fitness and nutrition club for children after school. Extension also offered a Cancer Prevention Cooking School for adults, which attracted more than 20 county residents. In addition, four municipalities in Calhoun County are installing walking trails.

Through a collaboration with Touching Taliaferro with Love Inc., a group that sponsors summer programs for students, UGA Extension in Taliaferro County provides nutrition and healthy living classes at local school buildings. Extension also promotes exercise sessions for seniors at the county senior center.

FACS Extension agents offer “Cooking for a Lifetime: Cancer Prevention Cooking Schools” across Georgia. These classes educate participants about their risks for breast, cervical and colorectal cancer; encourage them to schedule cancer screenings; and provide nutritional guidelines and physical activity recommendations, all with the goal of preventing cancer. Since 2017, this program has reached more than 1,000 Georgians in 31 counties.

In another project, UGA Extension agents in Georgia’s Calhoun, Colquitt and Washington counties are piloting a nationwide training through the 15-state Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Building Culture of Health partnership with Extension. The project involves all of Extension’s program areas: FACS, ANR and 4-H.

“The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, as well as other organizations, sees Extension doing for rural health what it did for agriculture,” said Deborah Murray, UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences (FACS) associate dean for extension and outreach. “In Extension, we have always dealt with health: well-water safety, food safety, nutrition, youth development. Today, the view on medicine and public health is much more integrated and holistic than in the past. People now want to grow the food, keep it safe and use it as an important part of preventative medicine.”