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Source: University of Illinois Extension news release

Urbana, IL - Throughout history, families have grappled with how to manage chronic health conditions, eat well, balance a family budget, and create a stable beginning for their youngest family members. But modern families are faced with a new set of challenges layered on top of the long-standing issues: overcoming the health care gap in rural areas, understanding the health and wellness impact of living in a digital society, and managing the care and quality of life for elder family members, among others.

To address these and other emerging issues, University of Illinois Extension taps Family and Consumer Science program staff to uncover local needs and deliver information in a coordinated statewide educational plan. Dr. Jennifer McCaffrey, assistant dean and FCS program leader, directs a team of more than 250 staff with expertise in nutrition, personal finance, health and wellness, and aging. Collectively, the team reaches more than two million people each year through classes, web-based material, and educational fact sheets.

"The pandemic heightened demand for family and consumer sciences content and reinforced several critical content themes," says McCaffrey. "From understanding mental health to managing relationships, and from finding and accessing food to handling personal finances, our educators were able to respond to real-time needs for Illinois families. But our work also highlighted the need for fresh strategies and resources to address crucial gaps in coverage across the state."

McCaffrey's goal is simple-she wants to make it easier for families and communities to build environments that support health and wellbeing. To do that, her team needs more expert resources to conduct research, create new educational content and vehicles to deliver it, and pursue strategically important partnerships.

The FCS team has a history of leveraging partnerships to achieve strategic outcomes. Currently, the team leads two federal grants from the USDA geared toward nutrition and physical activity outcomes for limited-resource families. Through the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed), Illinois Extension educators work directly with families and youth to improve their diets and food-related behaviors. Funding for these programs total approximately $25 million.

With SNAP-Ed funding nearly doubling in the past ten years, Extension has responded by hiring more educators and community workers to expand the immediate reach of the program. Now, state staff and the supporting infrastructure will be strategically adjusted to support the expansion. This represents one of the critical growth areas for the FCS team over the next 12 months with a plan to re-align leadership and add three new staff positions to support the grants.

McCaffrey's new strategic plan for the FCS team also increases collaboration with faculty on grants related to farm stress, reaching rural veterans, food access, quality of life for older adults, and vaccination awareness.

"These adaptations are critical to connecting human sciences research and data-driven programs with needs and concerns voiced by vulnerable audiences," says Shelly Nickols-Richardson, associate dean and director of Illinois Extension. "Helping families reach nutrition and well-being goals is a significant part of how Illinois Extension can address long-standing issues of food access and health care quality across the state."

Armed with a talented staff and a new vision for how to serve the diverse needs of the state, McCaffrey and her team have launched a mission to expand services, create deeper understanding of emerging needs, and align team leadership and staffing. The new team structure will add depth and breadth to the team's expertise that will support carrying out new initiatives to best serve Illinois residents.

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