December 1999 // Volume 37 // Number 6 // Research in Brief // 6RIB3

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Taking the Time to Ask: An Assessment of Home Economics Agents' Resource and Training Needs

Michigan State University Extension food, nutrition and health campus-based staff members conducted a needs assessment of county home economics agents to obtain information to drive decision making for programs, resources and training and to build rapport with county agents. The methods used to collect this crucial information were personal telephone interviews with 62 county agents and a follow-up printed questionnaire. Findings supplied a wealth of information for campus staff members to use to establish priorities about program planning and support, select or develop materials or other resources, and plan and implement training appropriate and helpful to county staff.

Anne Murphy
Nutrition Education Evaluation Services
East Lansing, Michigan
Internet address:

Gayle Coleman
Program Leader
Internet address:

Pat Hammerschmidt
Program Leader
Internet address:

Kathy Majewski
Associate Program Leader
Internet address:

Michigan State University Extension
East Lansing, Michigan

Amy Slonim*
Program Director
Michigan Public Health Institute
Okemos, Michigan
Internet address:

*At the time of this study, Amy Slonim was a specialist and assistant professor, Michigan State University Extension.

Research Need and Overview

In response to the evolving needs of Children, Youth and Family county Extension agents and statewide resource allocation challenges, the Michigan State University (MSU) Extension food, nutrition and health campus-based staff conducted a needs assessment of home economics agents. The methods used to collect these data were a personal telephone interview with each of the 62 county home economics agents and a follow-up written questionnaire.

The objective of this research was to obtain information to drive strategic priority setting and resource allocation decision making. Specifically, there was a need to document current and planned program activities and resource usage so that priorities for future resource development and training could be effectively established. Another objective was to build rapport and communication between county and campus-based staff members.

Assessment Tool Development and Use

Several campus-based Extension food, nutrition and health program leaders and a specialist formed the research team to develop two assessment tools - a structured survey that would be completed in a telephone interview and a 10-page follow-up questionnaire. Both the telephone interview survey and the follow-up questionnaire were reviewed and revised by members of the Extension Food, Nutrition and Health Program Development Committee (consisting of both campus and county Extension staff members) and an evaluation specialist before they were used.

The telephone survey was designed to elicit general information about current program priorities, usefulness of existing resources, preferred type and frequency of training for professional agents and paraprofessional staff members, and preferred delivery methods for receiving information and resources from campus. The research team conducted individual telephone interviews over a three-month period with all 62 home economics agents with food, nutrition and health responsibilities in the six MSU Extension regions of the state.

The in-depth telephone interviews gave county home economics agents the opportunity to elaborate on their responses and enabled campus-based staff members to build rapport with county agents. The follow-up questionnaire was mailed to these agents after the telephone interview. This questionnaire was designed to obtain detailed information on current and future programs, priorities and resources. Forty-five (73%) of the agents returned completed surveys.

Home economics agents have multiple responsibilities in food, nutrition and health. These responsibilities vary among agents and might include managing the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) and/or the Family Nutrition Program (FNP), also known as the Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program, in their counties; responding to questions from the community; conducting programs outside of EFNEP and FNP; writing newspaper and newsletter articles; writing grant proposals; and/or doing radio and television programs. Both the telephone interview and follow-up questionnaire focused primarily on responsibilities outside of EFNEP and FNP management because those responsibilities had already been established.


Home economics agents reported that they determine the content and target group for program priorities outside of EFNEP and FNP based on client requests, community group needs, and their involvement with community agencies. Their current foci for food, nutrition and health programs outside of EFNEP and FNP were: food safety (18%), dietary changes to reduce risks for chronic diseases (11%), general nutrition (10%), the 5-A-Day for Better Health program (8%), reading food labels (6%), meal planning using the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Guide Pyramid (6%), weight management (6%), and prenatal nutrition along with feeding infants and young children (6%).

Resources considered by most agents to be "vital" and the preferred methods for sending them were: background information and recommendations for issues that "hit the news" (85%) sent via e-mail (84%); updates on current food and nutrition research (75%) sent via e-mail (57%); seasonal camera-ready articles (62%) sent to counties through MSU Extension's county mail system (66%); program ideas shared at meetings that involve staff training (47%) sent through CYF newsletters (21%); and updates on new teaching materials (46%) sent via MSU Extension's county mail system (37%). Resources not considered useful were summaries of journal articles and answers to questions that were frequently asked by individuals using the resource hotline.

Home economics agents reported that they rely on books, such as "The Joy of Cooking" and college textbooks for introductory nutrition, and newsletters, such as the Tufts Newsletter, in their offices first when they get a consumer question they can't answer or need information for a program. Agents turn to the campus staff using the telephone and e-mail hotline on an average of 2.2 times per month to obtain information on food preservation, food safety, and current hot topics and for answers to difficult questions.

Other resources used by home economists were (in descending order of frequency):

  • MSU databases, such as preserving food safely and the hotlines database for frequently asked questions,
  • Other home economists,
  • The USDA canning guidelines,
  • Their own files,
  • Toll-free telephone numbers such as the American Dietetic Association resource line, and
  • Bulletins.

The telephone interview and the follow-up questionnaire included several items asking agents to indicate the value of existing resources and identify future needs. Home economists indicated that keeping MSU Extension bulletins up-to-date and available through the MSU Extension bulletin office is a top priority because they were used to prepare presentations and as handouts, sent to clients in response to telephone calls, and used to update their own knowledge.

Topics for program materials needed by home economics agents for use with Extension clientele and the percent selecting are: meal planning the low-fat, 5 a Day way (51%); fast food choices (44%); nutrition and aging (42%); making food-related behavior changes (40%); nutrition facts and fiction (36%); feeding your children (31%); nutrition and heart disease (29%); safe food handling (29%); weight management (29%); eating the high-fiber way (27%). Home economics agents indicated in the written questionnaire that they would like camera-ready handouts, fact sheets, overhead transparencies and activity ideas combined in an educational "kit" for identified topics.

Agents were also asked to identify what they considered training topic priorities for both new and experienced paraprofessional staff members. Agents stated that the MSU campus staff should provide new paraprofessional staff members with training in these primary areas: the content of the curriculum used in Michigan's EFNEP and FNP, Eating Right is Basic (third edition) (27%); how to teach participants (21%); program delivery (16%); basic nutrition (16%); how to conduct a home visit (15%); and Extension procedures and philosophy (11%). The majority of the agents stated that MSU campus staff members should provide training on updates and timely topics for experienced paraprofessional staff members. Seventy-three percent of the agents felt that existing in-service opportunities met the needs of experienced paraprofessional staff members.

Agents suggested that the MSU campus staff provide training for all paraprofessionals on improving presentation skills (69%), nutrition recommendations for children (42%), basic review of nutrients (36%), adapting programs to a particular audience (31%), low-fat meal planning that includes at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily (29%), distinguishing nutrition facts from fiction (29%), and how to evaluate programs (24%).

Home economics agents were presented with a list of 25 training topics and asked to select up to five from which they would most benefit. The ten most commonly requested topics, in descending order of popularity, are critical thinking related to fact and fiction in the media, how to evaluate programs, changing nutritional needs with age, applying behavior change theories in program implementation, biotechnology, current research on nutrition and heart disease, current research on nutrition and cancer, improving presentation skills, nutrition recommendations for children, and nutrition and drug interactions.

Topics that were not considered high priorities for training for home economists or paraprofessional staff members included nutrition and athletic performance, eating more fiber, weight management, nutrition during pregnancy, breast-feeding basics, handling wild game safely, infant feeding, and immunization education. Breast-feeding basics and immunization may not have been considered training priorities because they are covered in existing training. Respondents did not explain why they considered other topics low priority. Respondents preferred that training be offered regionally or via satellite rather than on campus.

Suggested Role for Campus-based Staff Members

Agents were asked their perception of priority roles for campus-based food, nutrition and health program leaders and specialists. Generally, responses related to these responsibilities:

  1. Provide timely, accurate, easy-to-use updates and background information on research and issues that "hit the news" to help county agents be on the cutting edge regarding food and nutrition information.

  2. Develop easy-to-use teaching kits including fact sheets with background information, camera-ready handouts and activities ideas. Develop one-page bulletins and update them regularly. Maintain MSU Extension food, nutrition and health databases.

  3. Write grants, especially for funding periods longer than one year.

  4. Provide training that can be easily applied.

Application of the Findings

Although this project was time intensive, it supplied a wealth of information about county agents' perceived priorities and resource and training needs to assist campus-based staff members in developing strategies and priorities to meet these needs. It also succeeded in increasing communication links between county home economics agents and campus-based staff members. The questionnaires from and results of this study could be used as a starting point for other states interested in conducting a similar needs assessment process.

The development of resources and training to decrease the gap between what exists and what staff members need is an on-going process. The MSU Extension food, nutrition and health campus-based staff used the needs assessment to develop initial priorities for food, nutrition and health programs. Next an action plan for training, developing and revising materials and meeting critical county needs through technology such as e-mail and databases accessible through the Internet was put into place. The Home Economics Food, Nutrition and Health Program Development Committee helped to refine the action plan. In 1999, campus-based staff members are continuing to implement the action plan and adapting it to current county needs.


The authors would like to thank Chris Flood for her contribution to data analysis and the county home economics agents who contributed their time and thoughtful responses.