The Master Food Volunteer Program was launched in 2009 to help family and consumer science Extension agents reach more Virginians with information about the importance of good nutrition, healthy living and food safety.

“According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 62 percent of adult Virginians and 20 percent of the youth are overweight or obese and at risk of chronic disease,” says Melissa Chase, state coordinator of the Master Food Volunteer Program. “There is a critical need for educating consumers to improve overall health and quality of life in Virginia. Our volunteers are helping to fill this need.”

With fewer than 30 full-time family and consumer science agents scattered across the state and the demand for nutrition and food information on the rise, their presence has been welcomed. There are more than 78 certified volunteers throughout the Commonwealth, and more volunteer training classes are scheduled in the near future. “By training and organizing volunteers, our agents can multiply the number of people they can reach with educational programs and have a greater impact than if they were teaching the classes by themselves,” Chase states.

The “master volunteer” concept has been successfully used for many years by the Virginia Master Gardener Program. The Master Food Volunteer Program uses a similar approach — training volunteers who pass along the education to the public. Volunteers pay a small fee to receive 30 hours of training over four weeks. They learn about basic nutrition, meal planning, cooking techniques, food safety and how to work with diverse audiences. “While many of our volunteers come to us with a lot of experience, the research-based training ensures that the information they are sharing is based on tested and approved methods,” explains Chase.

After completing the training program, volunteers select venues to share their new found expertise. Programs are customized to the needs of the communities and focused on the talents of the Extension agents and volunteers. “Some may go into the school system and teach youth about eating healthy. Others may do demonstrations of safe preparation and storage of local foods at farmers markets around the region. Or they can choose to do health fairs, in which case they would maintain an educational exhibit with nutritional information set up to help the public. The opportunities are endless,” Chase observes. Our volunteers have a sincere interest in helping others make choices to improve their well-being. They enjoy sharing knowledge and seeing changes in behavior. It motivates the volunteers when they see the impact of hard work.”

Some volunteers sign on for their personal benefit, and they become hooked on the program when they see results their work has in communities. “I first started this to have shelf-stable foods for my family. It is important that we know how to take care of ourselves,” says Rebecca Shannon, a volunteer in Floyd County. “The Master Food Volunteer Program is an outlet where I can pass on what I know to others. It is a way that I can give back to the community.”

In addition to the technical knowledge they gain, many volunteers learn job skills including interpersonal communications, public speaking and presentation skills they can use in other parts of their lives.

“Many of our volunteers are doing things they have never done before – activities help promote personal growth,” Chase explains.

Shannon enjoys helping others to help themselves. “We can give a family a sack of food, and they’ll eat for a week. But if we teach them how to garden and cook and preserve, they will be able to feed themselves forever. That’s why I volunteer.”

Master Food Volunteer Program

Photo courtesy of Virginia Cooperative Extension

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