New Master Food Volunteers Teach Safe Food Preservation



volunteers prepare green beans and carrotsAMES, Iowa -- The Food Channel named food preservation the top food trend for 2011. However, Iowa’s new Master Food Volunteers aren’t concerned so much with trends as with helping people learn how to preserve food safely. Whether driven by economics, food recalls or simply the desire to “do it themselves,” 20 new Iowa State University Extension volunteers are trained, certified and ready to share their knowledge about safe and efficient methods of home food preservation.

The Master Food Volunteer pilot program is under way in ISU Extension’s Region 6, covering Cherokee, Buena Vista, Pocahontas, Calhoun, Sac and Ida counties, said ISU Extension 4-H Youth Development Program Specialist Carol Ehlers, who helped organize the program. The effort was funded in part through a Helen LeBaron Hilton Fund and Excellence in Extension grant. In March, the 20 volunteers chose to participate in one, two or three full days of hands-on training. Most opted for all three days, nearly seven hours per day, literally up to their elbows in fresh produce as they practiced safe methods of pressure canning, boiling water bath canning, processing jams and jellies, pickling, drying and freezing foods.

“People took vacation days from work to attend. They were that committed to wanting to learn about safe food preservation,” said ISU Extension Nutrition and Health Program Specialist Renee Sweers.

Volunteers learn — and give back

Depending on the amount of training they received, the certified volunteers have pledged to give back 16 to 32 hours of volunteer service to their communities in food-based, educational programs within one year. For example, they might provide dial gauge testing of pressure canners, assist with food preservation workshops for 4-H youth and their adult leaders or judge home-preserved foods at county fairs. They also might work with local farmers’ markets, providing research-based food preservation information to consumers.

Master Food Volunteers are interested in food, cooking and nutrition; through this pilot program they will take their expertise to a higher level and share their knowledge and skills in their communities. Extension staff members in the region are looking forward to working with this trained volunteer pool, Sweers said. “It’s more than responding to the latest trend. It’s applying food safety knowledge in the art of home food preservation.”

One of those newly certified volunteers, Sue Diaz of Storm Lake, said that as a young, single person, she didn’t know anything about canning or gardening. But now she looks forward to sharing her training with the Latino population in her community. Someday, she added, she hopes to pass on the knowledge and skills that she’s gained to children of her own.

volunteers preparing tomoatoesCounties saw need for food preservation education

The need for such a specialized volunteer education effort was identified by the six counties beginning in summer 2010; “that’s what our rural county clients told us that they would like to see,” said Calhoun County Youth Coordinator Jill Mims. Extension staff in the counties gathered client feedback, observations from county fair food exhibit judges in both 4-H and open classes, and consumers’ food safety concerns related to last year’s egg recall.

State data backed up this regional interest. The ISU Extension Families Answer Line had seen a dramatic increase in food preservation calls over the past two years. Through 2008, food preservation questions accounted for about 19 percent of calls; by 2010, food preservation questions had increased to 28 percent of Answer Line’s total call volume.

“An increased interest in home food preservation may be due to a number of factors,” said ISU Extension Nutrition and Health Specialist Nancy Clark, one of the regional program’s organizers. “The economy and the need to stretch food dollars come into play as more people are gardening. Food safety issues and people wanting to know what is in their food, as well as local foods and sustainable agriculture trends, are also behind the home food preservation movement.”

Besides, preserving food is just plain fun, Clark said. “It’s a great way to get families together and start some new traditions. There’s also the personal satisfaction of ‘wow, I grew that, I preserved that and I’m eating off the land.’”

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[PHOTO] -- Participants prepare green beans and carrots during Master Food Volunteer food preservation training.

[PHOTO] -- Participants process tomatoes during Master Food Volunteer food preservation training.