'Families Extension Answer Line. How May I Help You?'

That’s what Iowans hear when they call 1-800-262-3804 and reach Families Extension Answer Line from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. (Minnesotans and South Dakotans call a different number, but get the same friendly greeting.) Answer Line staff are always ready to answer home and family questions with research-based information, Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to noon and 1-4 p.m.

That translates to more than 20,000 calls -- and email messages to answer@iastate.edu  -- per year, or nearly 80 clients per weekday.

ISU Extension and Outreach has been providing Answer Line for 38 years. Staffing has changed many times. However qualifications for staff remain the same: a degree in Family and Consumer Sciences (food related degrees are preferred) and at least two years of relevant work experience. Since nearly three-fourths of the calls are related to food, it is crucial to have staff members who are knowledgeable in that area, said Liz Meimann, Answer Line’s coordinator. Carolyn Brown and Beth Marrs complete the current staff line up.
“Our goals have not changed since 1975: We provide immediate answers to questions that are related to home economics and family living. We provide unbiased, research-based answers to consumers’ questions,” Meimann said.

All Kinds of Questions

Meimann was staffing the office on her own on a recent fall afternoon. She’d answer a call, hang up, log the data and the phone would ring again.

“Twenty-five minutes at 350 degrees.”

“Just package it in freezer containers or freezer bags.”

“Don’t cut the vent holes in the pie crust. Freeze it whole, and bake it in the frozen state.”

Then she answered a call about manure testing, directing the caller to the appropriate source. In 2012 Answer Line began managing “Ask an Expert,” email questions that are submitted via the ISU Extension and Outreach website. This feature also expanded the range of questions coming into Answer Line, adding insect, wildlife, gardening and other agriculture-related topics to the mix. When Answer Line isn’t the appropriate source to answer one of these questions, the staff make sure it gets directed to an extension specialist who can provide the answer.
The Answer Line staff also post updates and recipes on Facebook, tweet tips on Twitter and maintain several Pinterest boards on family living topics. They blog about everything from food preparation, preservation and safety to nutrition, cleaning and home environment.

The phone rang again.

“We do cleaning … the fiberglass on what? Oh, around the edge of the oven door. … You can do that, it won’t hurt a thing.”

“Scrub them with baking soda. That should take the ‘sticky’ off of those handles. …Baking soda works on everything as a scrubber and it won’t scratch. It doesn’t kill germs, but it does freshen things.”

People Still Want to Talk

In the beginning, Answer Line staff stored information in a card file. The questions and answers on those cards came from publications that were written by ISU Extension and Outreach specialists. Later they added an Apple computer and a system of notebooks to store frequently asked questions. Now laptops, books and an in-house database help the staff answer questions.
July and August tend to be Answer Line’s busiest months, in the prime of gardening and canning season. The three days before Thanksgiving also are very busy. The slowest months are January and February, Meimann noted.
“Before the Internet we got more calls, and they were shorter. Now people want more information. We are one of the safe places to call, and they ask so many questions. People will say ‘thanks for being somebody I can talk to.’ They like to be able to ask a question and then ask that second or third question,” she said.

“We’re here to help when people have questions. If we’re not their last phone call, we try to be the second to last so we can get them to the right place,” Meimann said.

The phone rang again.

“A lower heat and a really thick, heavy pan. The thicker pan and lower heat are going to do the best. Make a note on your recipe.”

“You’re quite welcome. Thank you.”
Answer Line is funded by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, University of Minnesota Extension and South Dakota State University Extension.
November 2013

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