Information Technology in Food and Nutrition Extension Programs

Information Technology in Food and Nutrition Extension Programs

Hertzler, Ann A

Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS) Extension educators, FCS Extension clientele, and Food and Nutrition Extension specialists across the U.S. were surveyed to identify ways in which the Internet and other electronic resources are being used in food and nutrition programs. Results indicate that educators access, disseminate, and present information electronically on food and nutrition. Nearly three-fourths of the FCS Extension client respondents used computers and two-thirds used the Internet. Although Extension Web sites were identified in the survey, much of the food and nutrition information is duplicated and difficult to locate. Interactive Extension Web sites that provide credible information in user-friendly formats are needed.

More than two-thirds of Americans have access to the Internet, and about half of Internet users believe most or all of online information is reliable (The UCLA Internet Report, 2000).

Many health concerns in the U.S. such as heart disease, osteoporosis, obesity, and some forms of cancer are diet-related. Risks for these diseases can be reduced with nutritious diets and regular exercise. Although a number of Web sites on food and nutrition exist, some are difficult to locate, and some do not provide scientifically sound information (Hertzler, Young, Baum, Lawson, & PennMarshall, 1999).

Family and consumer sciences (FCS) professionals have a rich history of educating families about food and nutrition (Hertzler, 1984). Because many Americans search the Internet for food and nutrition information, FCS professionals need to use it in their education programs. First, however, the current uses and challenges of this technology to FCS professionals and clientele must be identified. Therefore, a survey was designed to identify ways in which the Internet and other electronic resources are used within Cooperative Extension food and nutrition programs.

The authors acknowledge funding support for this research project provided by the Virginia Tech Center for Information Technology Impacts on Children, Youth, and Families.


A project team of four university faculty and staff members with teaching and/or Extension responsibility conducted the study in one southeastern state. The survey was implemented in spring, 2001, and was approved by an institutional review board.

FCS Extension educators, FCS clientele, and food and nutrition Extension specialists across the US participated. FCS Extension educators were asked to identify ways in which they were using the computer, Internet, and other electronic resources, and to assess the feasibility of incorporating new technologies into education programs. The FCS clientele were asked about electronic resources used and the type of information searched for on the Web. Food and nutrition Extension specialists were asked how they were using the Internet in Extension programs.

The team designed three questionnaires, one for each group in the study. Each questionnaire consisted of open- and closed-end questions. Questionnaires were mailed to 67 FCS Extension educators. Five of the educators who specialize in nutrition and wellness administered the FCS clientele questionnaire to 10 individuals. Food and nutrition Extension specialists received the questionnaire electronically via Percentages were calculated for each questionnaire.


FCS Extension Educators

Thirty-three (49.3%) FCS Extension educators completed and returned the questionnaire. All indicated that they had their own office computer and access to laptops and PowerPoint presentation projectors. This suggests that these educators were equipped to access, disseminate, and present information electronically on food and nutrition in programs.

Most of the FCS educators used the Internet occasionally or frequently to receive or answer client questions via e-mail (91%) and to refer clients to Web sites (94%). More than half of them used e-mail and the Web for agency or organization mailing lists and for program marketing, but only 30% used it as a means to register for programs.

Most educators (66% to 100%) thought e-mail, word-processing, the state Extension Intranet, PowerPoint, the Internet (Web), the state Extension Web site, and CD programs were “very useful” electronic resources. Fewer thought spreadsheet programs, database programs, and the university and department Web sites were “very useful” in Extension programs.

Educators suggested what FCS professionals could do to become a more viable resource on the Internet: “do a better job marketing the VCE Web site” (26%) and “develop interactive Web sites” (26%). These ideas parallel those of Pagan and Bednar (2001) that the most common reasons why dietitians established Web sites were to improve their business image, to complement business advertising, and to attract new clients outside the local area. Promotional methods included placing Web site addresses on business cards, stationery, handouts, and newsletters.


Of the 50 client questionnaires, 21 were returned, for a 42% response. Responders (76%) were fairly evenly divided among the 40s, 50s, and 60s in age; all but one were female. Because of the response rate, results do not represent Extension clientele in the state; however, they do provide some insights worth noting and investigating.

Fifteen (71%) of the responders used a computer either at home, at work, or elsewhere, primarily the library. Of these, most used the computer for word processing (87%) and e-mail (87%). Many used it to search the Web (67%) and to play games (67%).

Nine clients responded to a question about Web site topics. Eight (89%) looked for “recipes,” and five (56%) sought “nutrition” information. Four (44%) searched for information on “medicine,” and four (44%) wanted information on “exercise.” Three (33%) looked for information on “high blood pressure” and “diabetes.” Six indicated information found on the Web was “very reliable,” and four said “somewhat reliable.” Nine (82%) sought information for themselves; six (55%) for their spouses; four for a child/adolescent, four for a person at work or “other;” three for a family member; and one for a friend.


Food and nutrition specialists from approximately 25% (12) of the states responded to the electronic questionnaire. In responding to questions, specialists often provided URLs to Web sites as examples. These state Web sites were viewed to summarize the results.

General comments by respondents on the quality of Extension Web sites included: URLs were too lengthy to be copied or keyed in correctly, links often did not work, and many contained “blind loops” that did not allow return to the original source.

Duplication of information was noted among state Web sites, suggesting a need for collaboration to reduce redundancy and expand content. One extension site linked to more than 20 federal and state food-safety sites; one partnered with the state district FDA; and one included a comprehensive listing of food safety topics. These are examples of collaboration. Innovative sites were discovered as a result of the survey. Some were informational sites (Healthy Eating Index, Hunger/Food Security) while others served as links to more information (American Dietetic Association, Tufts University Nutrition Navigator).

Web sites dealt with a variety of food and nutrition topics and audiences. Audiences included youth, seniors, limited-resource families, and professionals. Two audiences not mentioned by any of the specialists were infants and persons with disabilities. Policy issues included grant writing and funding opportunities, nutrition policy and promotion links, non-government organization food programs, and public health statistics.

Information on Web sites was presented in a variety of ways, which can make it difficult for the Internet user. Food and nutrition topics were found in alphabetized menu lists, through the use of search engines, by links to other sites, and by image files. Information also was presented in various formats such as Extension publications, newsletters, and press releases.


Results suggest that Cooperative Extension’s use of the Internet and other electronic resources in food and nutrition programs is diverse. This discussion focuses on three areas-content, duplication, and marketing-to illustrate challenges facing FCS professionals when trying to incorporate these electronic resources into education programs.


Research indicates that Extension educators use recipes to help illustrate principles or concepts of nutrition in meal planning, food buying, and preparation (Hertzler & Pearson, 1985; Hertzler et al., 1999). Although eight of nine FCS Extension clients said they searched the Web for recipes, none of the FCS Extension educators made reference to recipe sites. Four of the 13 specialists listed recipe information on their Web sites: a quick meals course being tested for consumers, links to trade sites, “quick techniques” for healthy cooking, and a nationally popular extension resource (“Finding Recipes on the Internet”) with many ideas on food and equipment for the modern kitchen ( Federal government Internet sites with food and nutrition information include:

* National Agricultural Library


* USDA for Kids


Recipes are valuable in providing food and nutrition information to all individuals, regardless of education (Hertzler, 1984). However, recipes can have a negative influence if they are inaccurate. Unfortunately, most credentials of recipe contributors on Web sites cannot be ascertained beyond that of an enthusiastic cook (Hertzler & Chen, 2002).

Web sites are providing book titles for use with young children in promoting nutrition education. Additional programming includes help with reading levels, food and nutrition content, cultural diversity, and supportive activities (Byrne & Nitzke, 2000, 2002; Hertzler, 2000; Hertzler & Murphy, 1998).

The survey indicates that Extension food and nutrition Web sites target many audiences, including youth. A report (David and Lucile Packard Foundation, 2000) indicated that all of the nation’s children have access to computers at school, and, except for low-income children, more than two-thirds have access at home. As Extension programs are developed to interface with children and youth, consideration needs to be given to resources that educate and raise curiosity relative to improving quality of life and connecting with academic educational standards.


Although numerous formats and overlapping of food and nutrition topics were evident, institutions rarely referenced another state or organization. However, institutions had unique topics such as eating disorders, specific nutrients, food shopping and preparation, cultural diversity, and self-assessment screeners.

Duplication and redundancy in format can make it difficult for the Internet user to locate information. Paul (2001) recommended strategies for disaster communication on the Web to help Internet users locate information. Information could be communicated through different domains (.com, .edu, .gov, .org); through Bulletin Boards, e-mail, on-line chats, news groups; and by making technology available in low-income areas. The following are recommended ways to prevent duplication of efforts and to promote greater coverage of food and nutrition information on FCS Extension Web sites:

* Develop a unique national system/format and common symbol or identifier for FCS Extension programs.

* Incorporate a comprehensive search engine.

* Provide questions and answers in an “ask the expert” format (local, state, and national).

* Provide content in a format that is user-friendly.


If FCS Extension professionals are to develop and use Web sites in education programs, marketing the sites is important. Respondents said that Extension Web sites need to be marketed statewide and locally. Extension Web sites may not be readily identified when searching for nutrition information. Most people tend to go to whichever sites are identified by search engines, many of which have business agreements with commercial sites.

Suggestions of Pagan and Beclnar (2001) to increase visibility on the Internet to attract new clients are reinforced by the findings of this study. Additional suggestions include:

* Develop an educational approach different from “fact sheets.”

* Design interactive resources.

* Provide information in an easy-to-understand format.

* Conduct media campaigns to alert families to FCS Web pages.

* Incorporate a user-friendly format to prevent spending endless time searching.

* Provide professional credentials of Web site contributors.

* Invite community and school librarians to bookmark FCS Extension sites.

* Establish links with state sites (Department of Health), national (USDA) sites, professional organization sites (AAFCS/ADA), and cable companies.

* Form “Web Rings” with similar sites.

* Offer opportunities to sign up for Extension e-mail mailings.

* List Web sites on brochures, handouts, stationery, business cards, and newsletters.

* Make video clips for use in local news announcements.

* Design media Internet “clip” health messages of 2 or 3 lines for county educators to send to Extension audiences via e-mail.


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UCLA Center for Communication Policy. (2000). Surveying the Digital Future. Los Angeles: Author.

Ann A. Hertzler, PhD, CFCS, RD

Professor emeritus

Denise Brochetti, PhD, RN

Former assistant professor

Daisy Stewart, PhD

Associate professor

Nancy Templeman


Virginia Cooperative Extension

All authors are at Virginia Tech

Copyright American Association of Family & Consumer Sciences Nov 2003

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