K-State Research and Extension and Healthy People: Helping Kansans Access Nutritious Foods

This post is part of Healthy People 2020 in Review, a blog series highlighting how organizations across the nation are addressing social determinants of health — and how their efforts have helped us make progress toward Healthy People goals and objectives. The post describes how K-State Research and Extension, a Healthy People 2030 Champion, contributed to progress toward Healthy People 2020 objectives — as well as Healthy People 2030 objectives under the social determinants of health domain Economic Stability.

Making sure people have access to nutritious foods — and the information they need to make healthy food choices — takes a collective effort by passionate people. K-State Research and Extension (KSRE) exemplifies this through the work of dedicated staff members who support food access and nutrition programs in communities across Kansas. 

KSRE has been using Healthy People resources since the 1990s. For example, it used Healthy People 2020 objectives to guide state government agencies in creating statewide health and education goals — and then used those goals in planning its diverse range of programs.

KSRE, part of Kansas State University, belongs to a national network of Extension land-grant universities and institutions partially funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. These Extension organizations focus on providing research-based education and learning activities to create positive change in communities nationwide. KSRE has staff members — known as agents — working in all 105 of Kansas’ counties.  

“Our agents have their boots on the ground every day. Through our nutrition programs, they’re giving more people an opportunity to choose healthy foods — so they have a more equitable chance to be healthy,” says Stephanie Gutierrez, Extension Program Coordinator at KSRE. “And our nutrition programs are just a piece of what we do! Our agents work with communities on many issues to make Kansas better every day.”

Making Healthy Foods Accessible

KSRE’s programs have a strong focus on the connection between nutrition and social determinants of health — like health literacy, education, and transportation access. For example, KSRE partners with local and statewide organizations to improve policies, systems, and environments that support healthy behaviors and access to healthy foods. 

Through the Kansas SNAP-Ed program, KSRE offers classes on meal planning, grocery budgeting, and safe food handling and preparation. The goal of the program is, in part, to empower low-income Kansans to make healthy choices with the resources they have.

In addition, KSRE conducts a Dining with Diabetes program — which offers classes that help people with diabetes use flavorful recipes to create healthy meals. The program gives participants an opportunity to learn from certified diabetes educators and to get tips and ideas from each other. 

KSRE also takes many other steps to increase access to healthy foods — providing farmers market vouchers, food pantries, summer meal programs for students, and consulting services to help rural grocery stores stay in business. 

“When our agents help increase access to healthy foods, they may also see opportunities to connect people with other services they need,” Gutierrez says. “These are chances to address issues like access to health care, health insurance, child care, or housing. It’s a more comprehensive approach to improving health, well-being, and quality of life.” 

Keeping Culture Front and Center

Providing culturally relevant information is key to KSRE’s mission, as the organization often works with immigrants from Mexico and South America, as well as refugees from a variety of countries. 

“One of the most important things we do when implementing programs is balancing the expert approach with the resident voice,” says Elaine Johannes, Kansas Health Foundation Distinguished Professor in Community Health and Extension Specialist at KSRE.

For example, KSRE goes beyond simply translating nutrition information to making sure that information is relevant to people from different cultures and backgrounds. Through partnerships with community health worker networks, KSRE works with native Spanish and Hmong speakers to “transcreate” content — providing culturally relevant recipes and information that audiences can connect to.

In addition, KSRE’s work with the Tribal Food Systems Project further demonstrates its commitment to working with communities, not just on their behalf. Specifically, KSRE provides tribal communities with resources on food safety and nutrition education but leaves it up to community leaders to decide exactly how to use these resources within their own governance systems.

Setting a Statewide Agenda with Healthy People 2030

KSRE’s work — both within and outside the nutrition field — shows how efforts at the community level are crucial to achieving the Healthy People 2030 vision. In fact, KSRE is part of a state initiative — through the Kansas Department of Health and Environment — to use Healthy People 2030 objectives to inform the creation of Kansas’ own disease prevention and health promotion program. Called Healthy Kansans 2030, the program uses nationwide goals and data from Healthy People 2030 to help shape goals for the state — on topics like food insecurity and water sanitation.

KSRE will also align with Healthy People 2030 by focusing much of its work on social determinants of health, health equity, and health literacy. And it will use the Leading Health Indicators and tools like evidence-based resources to make sure its efforts support Healthy People’s priority areas. 

“Our hope is to inspire other Extension institutions to become Healthy People 2030 Champions. Our Extension network shows the power of working together, and we want to get people on board with working with Healthy People too,” Johannes says.

If your organization works to address social determinants of health and achieve health equity, consider applying to join the Healthy People 2030 Champion Program.

Categories: health.gov Blog, Healthy People in Action