Cooperative Extension as a Public Health Partner in COVID-19 Outreach

by David R. Buys, PhD, MSPH, CPH


A Brief History

The Cooperative Extension Service has deep roots in every county across the United States; this Extension infrastructure was formalized through the Smith-Lever Act in 1914 to serve as the outreach and non-formal education branch of the Land Grant University system. Early Extension professionals focused on community-based education to enhance the universities’ outreach in agriculture, engineering, youth development, and family and consumer sciences — then called home economics. The focus grew to include community resource development. Extension also now plays a significant role in disaster and emergency preparedness, response, and recovery. In many states, Extension cooperates formally with their state’s emergency management agency and department of health to serve an official function in this space.

Given these disaster and emergency-related activities, Extension leaders from multiples states coalesced efforts in 1993 and developed the Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN). In 2003, the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture began funding EDEN’s coordination and communications, web development and maintenance, curriculum development, training, and resource development efforts.

Extension and COVID-19

Extension professionals from across the country, along with EDEN, are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent informal survey by the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy to assess resources and approaches each state is applying to this crisis, found that more than 40 Universities have engaged in COVID-19 related outreach. Many of these resources are available here.

A Model from Mississippi

I serve as State Health Specialist with Mississippi State University Extension and work in tandem with Extension agents in our 82 counties. My routine role is to provide the agents training in evidence-based resources and curricula they can deliver to community members. In light of COVID-19, our agents are no longer delivering in-person training but instead provide technical assistance on a host of matters at-a-distance. To keep them informed on COVID-19, I, along with others on the Extension faculty and administration, share internally facing messages through webinars, written communication, and/or phone-based technical assistance.

For public-facing messaging, we collaborate with staff from Extension’s Agricultural Communications Department — the public relations unit of the organization — to curate resources from trusted sources, such as the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and MS State Department of Health. We are intentionally not re-inventing the wheel of resources that exist and instead aim to connect clients with existing, evidence-based information.

With that said, when we do create new material, we seek to contextualize Extension’s particular expertise for this crisis.

David Buys and colleagues from MSU Extension have developed a series of videos to share important messages to support lifestyle changes during the COVID-19 outbreak. Pictured here is Buys with Alisha Hardman. Access the videos here.

We have specialists in child development, family science, health literacy, food safety, and more. We are putting that expertise to work to connect Mississippians and others with information they need to make it easier to survive this crisis through video, social media, and print resources. We have covered topics like “How to talk to children in times of crisis;” “What to do with your children when you’re cooped up at home for extended periods of time;” “What do all the terms mean, anyway?;” and “Is my food safe to eat, or is it corrupted with COVID-19?” We are also leveraging our reach with regular hosts of Facebook Live sessions, which focus on food preparation, and gardening to share messages about COVID-19. Collectively, these videos have reach more than 25,000 viewers!

MSU Extension developed a 14-day meal plan based on freezer-friendly and shelf-stable ingredients. (Click to access plan.)

We have also leveraged our nutrition expertise to produce a 14-day meal plan based primarily on shelf-stable and freezer-friendly ingredients. This plan had over 100,000 views and 900 downloads in just 3 days! These and all of our Extension resources related to COVID-19 are online here.

A Call to Partnership

As professionals interested in public health management and practice, it is important to consider partners outside the purview of this routine work who may have a critical role to play in mitigating the impact of a crisis like COVID-19 by providing wrap-around, supportive information, and services.

While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, I hope that we all consider how we can widen and lengthen our proverbial tables — of course for social distancing purposes — and to bring more partners to those tables! Indeed, we must be about testing, contact tracing, policy implementation, and other overt public health functions in response to COVID-19. We must also consider the ways in which non-traditional partners are necessary in achieving our collective goal to ensure that we realize a healthy society in the near future. Extension is one example of a partner that seeks to do just that!

Recommended Reading in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice:

Related Podcasts and Posts:


Dr. David R. Buys

David R. Buys, PhD, MSPH, CPH, is State Health Specialist and Assistant Professor for Mississippi State University Extension. Dr. Buys is co-lead for COVID-19 response for Extension in Mississippi. He has published more than 30 peer-reviewed articles and has secured more than $7 million in federal grants and contracts. Find him on Twitter at @DrBuys.

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