AgriLife Extension brings health, wellness through family, community outreach

Writer: Paul Schattenberg, 210-859-5752,

Contacts: Dr. Susan Ballabina, 979-862-3932,

Paula Butler, 972-952-9229,

Dr. Stephen Green, 979-845-6468,

Dr. Angela Burkham, 806-677-5600,

COLLEGE STATION – While individuals go to gyms and eat better to fulfill New Year’s resolutions, the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and collaborators continue their mission of health and wellness education and outreach to families and communities throughout Texas.

“Over the decades, the focus of the agency’s outreach has changed,” said Dr. Stephen Green, family and community health assistant director, College Station. “Most recently this led to the decision last year to change the name of the Family Development and Resource Management unit to Family and Community Health. “We changed the name of our unit to better reflect its focus on health education, to provide greater consistency across the agency in terms of priorities and to meet the needs of a changing population.”

Green said for many years subject matter specialists within the unit, along with their counterparts in AgriLife Extension’s nutrition unit, have worked closely with county agents to provide health and wellness education.

In the early days, home demonstration agents primarily met with  women at homes in rural communities. (Photo courtesy of TAMU Cushing Memorial Library and Archives.)

According to Paula Butler, AgriLife Extension regional program leader for family and community health, East Region, based in Dallas, the agency’s outreach began in the 1930s with  home demonstration agents going into more rural communities to address the needs of a more agrarian society,

“This included things like showing homemakers how to preserve the fruits and vegetables they harvested and teaching them how to sew,” Butler said

However, Butler said, as society’s changed so did the agency’s focus.

“In the mid-90s, we changed the name of our unit to Family and Consumer Sciences to reflect the change from an agrarian society to a urban and industrial one in which there was more of an emphasis on objective, science-based information. Then over the last 10 years there’s been a health crisis, so we ramped up to address health and the prevention of chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, obesity and cancer.”

Dr. Angela Burkham, AgriLife Extension family and community health state program leader based in Amarillo, said the foundation of the Cooperative Extension System of land-grant institutions in the U.S. was based on positively changing human behavior by teaching people how to apply the results of scientific research.

“As we looked at the leading causes of death nationally in U.S., we saw seven of 10 are from chronic diseases,” Burkham said. “We also saw focusing on families and communities would better position us to educate people on making comprehensive lifestyle changes.”

“We’ve also joined with agencies, schools, hospitals, child and adult care facilities, and others to address health and wellness challenges at multiple levels so we can help reduce medical costs and improve the quality of life for families and communities throughout Texas, Green said. “This broader focus has allowed us to develop and implement prevention-oriented strategies that over time can affect the entire state.”

The rise in health care costs and the obesity epidemic are at the top of the list of health issues in Texas, said Dr. Susan Ballabina, AgriLife Extension executive associate director, College Station.

“We are in an age where there’s a need for specialization and we wanted to focus our agency toward more specialized efforts and to become even better known for those efforts,” Ballabina said. “Working with insurance plan providers and other partners across the state on health education has helped us grow our network.”

She said health and wellness efforts led by AgriLife Extension are reaching more Texans through nutrition education, promoting healthful foods and eating behaviors, and providing opportunities to engage in physical activity. Some of these efforts include Healthy Texas, Walk Across Texas, the Master Wellness Volunteer program, Dinner Tonight, Step Up and Scale Down and the youth-oriented Learn, Grow, Eat and Go program.

More recently, agency efforts have been focused on statewide family and community activities in both urban and rural areas. One of these is the Dinner Tonight program (shown here), which promotes family mealtime and offers easy and healthful recipes. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)

These programs are implemented through a network of family and community health agents and other AgriLife Extension personnel, including those from the agency’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, with support from the Cooperative Extension Program of Prairie View A&M University, Master Wellness Volunteers and various partners.

“For the past three years, we have collaborated with AgriLife Extension on several programs, including Walk Across Texas, Dinner Tonight and Do Well Be Well with Diabetes,” said Ashley Hutto, Baylor Scott & White Health and Wellness Center operations manager, Dallas. “These programs have been a great help to the work we do to promote health and wellness one person, one family, one community at a time.”

Hutto said the center will soon start a new program called Eating Well with Hypertension, developed at their request by AgriLife Extension for use in the Healthy Cities initiative in conjunction with the Dallas Park and Recreation Department and United Way of Metropolitan Dallas.

“We are also training some of our certified community health workers to become Master Wellness volunteers,” she said.

AgriLife programs have also been an important part of Temple Independent School District health initiatives, according to Temple ISD superintendent Dr. Robin Battershell.

“First we participated in a worksite wellness workshop and that was important in helping us develop an overall wellness plan for our employees,” she said. “Then we integrated some of their programs into this plan, including having two (Dinner Tonight) healthy cooking schools. AgriLife is also represented on our school health advisory committee.”

Lisa Helfman, founder and board chair of Brighter Bites, a Houston-based nonprofit, said AgriLife Extension has been “an amazing bridge” between her organization and communities in Dallas, Houston, Austin and surrounding areas.

“Our mission is to provide produce, nutrition education and fun food experiences that engage families and communities,” Helfman said. “The partnership with AgriLife Extension has allowed us to expand into more areas because it already has a network through which we can liaise with new communities. We can also launch our operations more quickly, like we did recently in Brazoria County. Statewide, our organization has assisted more than 30,000 families and distributed more than 15 million pounds of produce.”

Ballabina said efforts and collaborations in both urban and rural areas of the state provide a clearer picture of what the agency can offer.

“This empowers agents to work at the community level and be a force in more extensive efforts,” she said. “Now those we serve will better understand where our agents will be placing their emphasis, help us solidify more statewide partnerships and, while it encompasses a lot, still allow us the flexibility to work at the family and community level.”


Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service statewide health and wellness programs include:

— Healthy Texas – A collaboration with the Texas A&M Health Science Center that began as the Healthy South Texas pilot program — a 27-county program in underserved areas of the state — focusing on diabetes, asthma and infectious diseases. It has expanded to other parts of the state, developing partnerships in a more comprehensive effort to reduce preventable diseases and lower health care costs.

— Walk Across Texas — An eight-week program designed to help people of all ages establish the habit of regular physical activity. Solo walkers, teams or groups are challenged to walk 832 miles — the distance from the farthest west to east point in the state. In 2017, more than 47,000 youth and adults in 155 counties participated, logging more than 4.5 million miles.

— Master Wellness Volunteers – Volunteers are trained in how to extend AgriLife Extension outreach and education related to health, nutrition, food safety and family well-being in the communities where they live and work. In 2016, Master Wellness Volunteers provided 5,962 hours of service reaching 36,036 Texans.

— Dinner Tonight – This program encourages family mealtime and provides families with quick, easy, healthy and cost-effective recipes. It also offers healthy cooking classes, provides weekly online video demonstrations of cooking tips and meal preparation techniques, menu planning and healthy living.

— Step Up and Scale Down – This 12-week program is designed to help participants achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Using USDA dietary guidelines, the program focuses on promoting habits that encourage a healthy lifestyle, lead to weight reduction and reduce the risk of chronic disease.

— Learn, Grow, Eat and Go – A project of the International Junior Master Gardener Program that engages youth in a combination of academic achievement, gardening, nutritional food experiences, physical activity, and school and family engagement. More than 4,600 students across the state participated in this program in 2017.



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