Posts Tagged: Mary Blackburn
In the U.S., the holiday season of Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year seems to be a nonstop race to the end of the year. Gathering to exchange gifts and eat special food and bountiful meals are common ways we celebrate. But the new ‘Grinch' of the season, COVID-19, prevents us from gathering with elders and other people outside of our households.
“We've asked the most vulnerable in our culture to shelter, and now they are the most isolated and most in need of seeing people,” said Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at UC San Francisco.
Historically, elders in many cultures have special places in the hearts of families during the holiday period of thanks, well-wishing, giving and remembering.
Elders play a major role in passing on oral family history and showing how to prepare cultural or traditional family foods, favorite recipes and other novelties handed down from one generation to the next. In contemporary society, extended-family households are rare so millions of seniors are living alone. Some elders have the financial capability and support systems to enjoy fulfilling experiences during the holidays, as much as the pandemic allows. Others will spend time lacking the basics — food, warmth and conversation.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published some considerations with tips to prevent the spread of COVID-19 throughout the season – stay home and avoid unnecessary travel. The best way to help keep friends and loved ones safe is to celebrate at home with immediate household members or connect virtually.
Seeing someone nourishes the soul
UC Cooperative Extension collaborates with local public and private community-based organizations and groups to serve senior residents.
As charter member of the Alameda County Community Nutrition Action Partnership (CNAP), inaugurated in 2006, UC Cooperative Extension coordinates with the Alameda County Health Department, Area Agency on Aging, Alameda County Social Services Agency, Alameda County Department of Education, Alameda County Food Bank and others.
During the pandemic, CalFresh Healthy Living, UC supervisor Tuline Baykal and community educators Max Fairbee and Leticia Christian continue to provide nutrition information to community members, inserting into food bags recipes, nutrition information and exercises that can be done at home. Max Fairbee, CalFresh Healthy Living, UC educator has also volunteered to deliver food bags to residents at a senior housing site.
“The food bags were hefty in the beginning, but are smaller now with less items available at the Food Bank,” observed Fairbee. “Still, they usually get some fresh produce, some canned fruit or veggies, bread, potatoes, onions, eggs (sometimes) and meat (sometimes). Spectrum Community Services also has provided emergency relief food boxes which contain non-perishable items (including canned tuna) generally once a month.”
The food bags are delivered without contact with the elders.
“We knock or ring the doorbell, announce we are dropping off food and leave it in a safe spot near their door for them,” he explained. “The seniors stay inside their homes, but they are happy and so grateful to see the volunteers and staff. I think that seeing someone actually means more to them than the food itself.”
Food and family top the holiday wish list of vulnerable seniors
In November 2020, CalFresh Healthy Living UC educators asked low-income housing site coordinators and center directors what seniors in their complexes and centers would appreciate most for the holiday season.
Their desires are very basic to daily living. The seniors suggested the following:
COVID-19 prevention: Hand sanitizer, gloves
Food: A traditional holiday meal, Safeway gift cards; fresh produce, vegetarian meal, pumpkin pie
Celebration: cookie box, fruit box, dried fruit box, nuts.
Family: Having immediate or extended family visit
Clothing: Warm blankets and warm clothing
How can we honor and assist seniors?
Consider sending meaningful holiday messages to seniors. Let the seniors in your community know it is to them we owe our lives, our survival, our respect and our gratitude.
Families and friends: Call elders living alone to ask about their well-being. Having a conversation with them in person – while standing outside their door, distanced and wearing your mask – helps keep them connected. Offer to assist them, using all COVID-19 precautions. Make time to shop for them to ensure they have their medicine and food that is safe and healthful, in small portions for one or two people, and easy to prepare or heat. See that their refrigerator is clean, set at the right temperature, and free of outdated food. They may need help putting out the garbage, cleaning and sanitizing the kitchen, and doing laundry. Let them know you are someone to call if they need immediate help.
Caregiving: Caring is the operative word. Treat seniors with patience, respect and understanding. Let them know they are worthy of the care you give.
With the COVID-19 constraints, underserved and vulnerable groups are facing an even greater crisis, especially with access to health services, housing, food and financial support. This holiday season and throughout the year, I encourage you to reach out to our elders. If you don't have money to spare, you can give emotional gifts. Your attention, conversation and compassion will be appreciated.
When COVID-19 restrictions ease, UC Cooperative Extension will resume educational activities where elders can socialize and be recognized when they participate in gardening, nutrition, physical activity and safe food handling classes. We have seen success in training elders as “wellness ambassadors” to encourage their neighbors to join our activities to address isolation and communication issues.
Mary Blackburn, University of California Cooperative Extension nutrition, family and consumer sciences advisor for Alameda County, has received the National Extension Association of Family and Consumer Sciences Hall of Fame award.
“Your dedication to NEAFCS has been exhibited through the educational resources and leadership you have provided to your community, state and across the nation throughout the years to help families improve their living conditions,” Roxie Price, NEAFCS president, wrote to the UC Cooperative Extension advisor.
Blackburn, who has served in Alameda County since 1990, credits her successful career to heroes and sheroes – the people who encouraged her along the way.
“Mary Blackburn has really made a difference in the lives of Bay Area residents. Her work with local communities makes it easier for people to stay active and eat healthy food,” said Glenda Humiston, University of California vice president for agriculture and natural resources. “It's wonderful to see her receive national recognition from her peers.”
In 1963, UC Berkeley offered Blackburn, who had just graduated from Tuskegee University, one of four coveted spots in a new Master of Public Health Nutrition – Dietetic Internship program.
The mother of four preschool children didn't know how she would make it work. Her husband didn't want to leave his job in Alabama, but the opportunity was too big to turn down. She had been the first in her family to go to college and her parents, encouraging her to pursue higher education, offered to care for her children until she found housing in the Bay Area. Against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, white people were holding the plane to California for her. The young Black woman felt compelled to seize the opportunity as she boarded.
“I felt it confirmed that whatever I was doing, it was not at all about me, it was much bigger than me...That has kept me going for many, many years,” said Dr. B, as she is affectionately called by her colleagues.
Blackburn completed her Master of Public Health degree in 1965 and was among the first dietitians in the U.S. to become a Registered Dietitian in 1968. She continued her studies at UC Berkeley – bringing her kids with her to class when daycare fell through – to earn a doctorate in human nutrition and health planning and administration in 1974.
Getting her career off the ground as a community health professional was not easy, even in the liberal Bay Area, where she was fired for being Black. Twice. Each time she viewed the experience as progress: more than 50 years before the Black Lives Matter Movement, “There were people who were ready to stand up for me, and stand-down with me in the late Sixties,” she said.
Blackburn is nationally renowned for her pioneering work delivering research-based nutrition and quality of life education to senior citizens, pregnant teens and other vulnerable groups. Collaborating with the UC CalFresh Healthy Living program staff and UC Master Gardener volunteers, she recently launched a gardening project designed to improve the nutrition, physical activity and overall well-being of senior citizens living in affordable housing in Oakland, with special consideration for seniors with physical limitations.
A trailblazer in community nutrition and health planning, Blackburn began connecting gardening to nutrition in the early 1990s, long before community gardens became the preferred way to improve public health – a throwback to the World War II Victory Gardens.
In the 1960s, she was a public health nutritionist on a preventative primary-care team, working alongside doctors, public health nurses, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, occupational therapists, and community health workers to provide families with preventive health care after a child visited an urgent care clinic. The team took a holistic approach to addressing the social drivers of health – food, affordable housing and access to health care.
Her research, dating back to 1973, was seminal in addressing the social and health needs of different communities across the Bay Area – making dietary recommendations for Black people at risk for chronic disease, multi-ethnic people, pregnant women, young children and adolescents. Armed with her research, and assessments and evaluations of other members, the team urged policymakers to increase the food allotment for families with small children suffering from chronic food insecurity.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the National Extension Association of Family and Consumer Sciences held a virtual conference, where they recognized Blackburn with the Hall of Fame Award on Sept. 14. Blackburn has won numerous local, state, regional and national awards over the years, including the NEAFCS National Excellence through Research five times.
“I didn't know I would get so much soil today, now I can grow more cucumbers in my room!” said Miss Anita as she placed fresh soil into her plant pottery on Community Planting Day. The Estabrook Place resident was a first-time participant of a new gardening program for older adults hosted by the University of California Cooperative Extension in Alameda County.
The UC Cooperative Extension senior gardening program integrates healthy eating, active living and gardening education. Miss Anita was one of 200 seniors who participated in the gardening and nutrition education program led by Katherine Uhde, a CalFresh Healthy Living, UC community education specialist, in collaboration with the UC Master Gardener Program of Alameda County.
According to the National Institute of Aging, older adults experience high levels of social isolation and loneliness, which lead to an increased risk of chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, depression and obesity. Educational activities that promote a healthy lifestyle and encourage interaction with peers are recommended to prevent these conditions in aging adults.
“We need to be able to address the needs of our greying generation and focus on prevention rather than treatment,” explained Mary Blackburn, UC Cooperative Extension nutrition, family, and consumer sciences advisor, about the benefits of group-based wellness activities for seniors.
The senior gardening program was developed by Blackburn and tested at Palo Vista Gardens Community, an Oakland Housing Authority-managed senior property. It is part of a larger quality of life study on the health of aging adults being conducted at seven Eden Housing sites with CalFresh Healthy Living, UC, which serves diverse populations of people who are eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as CalFresh food. Through nutrition education and physical activity classes, CalFresh Healthy Living, UC empowers seniors and other underserved Californians to improve their health.
This is the first project that CalFresh Healthy Living, UC partnered on with Eden Housing, a nonprofit provider of affordable housing in Alameda County. Through the collaboration, Eden Housing residents are able learn about nutrition, food safety and gardening concurrently at their living facilities. Residents learned how to grow fresh herbs, including marjoram and basil, while learning the benefits of cooking with them.
In past research, Blackburn found unsafe food handling practices used by over half of the fixed-income seniors and food handlers and caregivers serving seniors surveyed in 10 counties. At the Alameda County location, a UC Master Food Preserver volunteer, trained in Solano County, offers safe food handling classes.
Because the residents speak various languages including Cantonese, Vietnamese, Spanish, and Korean, CalFresh Healthy Living, UC has partnered with the Volunteer Health Interpreters Organization to connect certified, student volunteer translators to assist the participants. This partnership allows UCCE educators to communicate with participants in their native language and allows residents to more easily interact with their neighbors and develop friendships.
To paraphrase the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child,” it takes a community to meet the needs of people with various physical and mental abilities, cultural backgrounds and life experiences.
On Community Planting Day, every senior resident is smiling as they dig their hands into the dirt to make room for a seed or seedling. Residents who were strangers before the event are exchanging ideas of what they would like to grow, and like Miss Anita, are enthused to grow more vegetables.
To assess the benefits of the gardening program for seniors, Blackburn is working with Lisa Soederberg Miller, director of the Adult Development Lab and professor in the Department of Human Ecology at UC Davis. They hope to share what they learn with others who wish to establish a similar program for seniors in their community.