Jimmie Johnson has been teaching health and nutrition through University of Minnesota Extension SNAP-Ed in Pine County since 2015. Aware of the food insecurity in certain parts of the county, he always mentally prepares himself for his work, with the intention of greeting each person with a smile and best wishes, and without judgment.
A new initiative among Extension partners gave Johnson an opportunity to do just that.
The Pine County board, the county’s Health and Human Services, and a nonprofit organization called Family Pathways worked together to develop and distribute family engagement kits to 2,000 households for eight weeks at four food distribution sites in late 2020.
The Pine City and Hinckley sites had cars lining up almost an hour early for the kits that came packaged in a University of Minnesota drawstring backpack. “It was overwhelming to look out and see all the people needing food,” says Johnson. “These distributions took place in the early afternoon, suggesting many people were unemployed.”
“While the need in Pine County continues to be very high, during these four months many individuals and families took advantage of extra food that was distributed to help them out,” says Kathy Wills, director of food equity and access at Family Pathways.
Susanne Hinnrichs, Extension regional director, personally knows one recipient. “It made a huge difference,” she says. “The food was extremely necessary during this time of the pandemic, but also the food kits were paired with family kits, and they helped this family speak about things that were going on.”
Using aid dollars to help families in need
Pine County provided $25,000 of Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) funding for this initiative because the pandemic has caused great strain on families.
“Families need to know that there are people in their corner. Hopefully, this will give families a mental boost and remind them that they are not alone,” says Sharon Powell, Extension family resiliency educator who was instrumental in the initiative.
Extension regularly works with all Minnesota counties in the areas of nutrition, agriculture and gardening, youth development and community development. “We've been working closely for the last few years around the opioid crisis in northeast Minnesota,” says Mary Jo Katras, who leads Extension’s family resiliency team.
Becky Foss, director of Health and Human Services, held conversations with county leaders about how to support families with these CARES Act dollars. “In chatting with Mary Jo and some of her colleagues, we really tried to focus on what different things we can do to support family engagement during this time. The relationship with Mary Jo and her team has been very helpful and fruitful and is going to benefit a lot of people.”
Family engagement kit themes
Mental wellness: A journal and journaling activities, yoga and stress management activities, and healthy sleeping guidelines are some of the items included. “We included fun stuff along with mental health and nutrition tips, as well as tips for parents with school-age children facing school closings,” says Silvia Alvarez de Davila, Extension family resiliency educator.
Family fun time: Information and family activities that support child development and healthy family relationships were included, along with resources to help children understand COVID-19 and steps families can take to stay healthy. Other items include a family calendar with tips for distance learning, a “family fun card,” positive messaging notes and conversation starters.
Healthy and fit: Outdoor activities such as jump roping, frisbee, exploring community, and encouraging creative and imaginative play were included in this kit.
Nutrition and family time: Many people have started cooking at home more — some for the first time. Food planning, recipes using the kinds of foods distributed at the sites, kids’ meals and snacks, a two-week menu guide, measuring cups, and cooking utensils were included.