Linda Cook began her extension career as a vocational home economics teacher in Hillsborough County. Her talent was soon spotted, and she was hired onto the state 4-H staff by state 4-H leader Woodrow Brown. “He was so proud of Linda. He knew he had a prize on the staff. He was touching the world when he hired that girl,” said Woodrow’s wife, Louise Brown.
She worked with the state 4-H staff for seventeen years managing food and nutrition education programs. A visionary and productive state 4-H specialist, Cook oversaw and led the Florida Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) for thirteen years. This multi-million dollar federally funded educational program focused on providing nutrition and health information to children in low-income communities in targeted counties in Florida.
Funded by Congress in 1968, EFNEP assists low-income families in improving their total diet and nutritional welfare. With support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, state and county extension professionals train and support paraprofessionals who teach nutrition information to youth and homemakers, said Cook. EFNEP educational programs are free to eligible families who have a desire to improve their quality of life.
"EFNEP has a tremendous impact on low-income families struggling with limited resources and the need to provide a healthy diet," Cook said. "Through education and EFNEP, clients learn to make food dollars go further, to feed their children more nutritious diets and to stretch their food until the end of the month."
Results of EFNEP include improved diets and family health, increased knowledge of nutrition essentials, increased ability to select and buy food that meets nutritional needs, increased ability to manage resources, and improved practices in food purchases, storage, safety and sanitation.
Since 1969, EFNEP has worked in 40 Florida counties with 143,281 homemakers and provided 449,319 families with nutrition information. During this same period, 115,832 youth participated in 4-H EFNEP programs.
In 1994, 96 percent of EFNEP's clients had an annual family income of less than $12,060, and 76 percent of the participating homemakers and 85 percent of the youth were minorities. More than 1,000 volunteers contributed 14,592 hours in teaching and service, valued at $72,840.
"Within IFAS and the Extension Service, EFNEP has the greatest documented impact with Florida's neediest families," Cook said. "EFNEP is extremely cost-effective. The data show we are saving our clients money equal to what it takes to deliver the program. The quality of improved nutrition and diets makes it a cost benefit."
In some other states, 4-H EFNEP participants were not part of the traditional 4-H club program. But Cook felt it was important for all children to reap the benefits of being part of a 4-H club program. So she encouraged 4-H EFNEP youth to participate in 4-H learning experiences. Several youth from EFNEP participated in Florida 4-H Congress demonstration programs, where they showed what they had learned in the program and developed valuable public speaking and presentation skills.
“Through Linda’s leadership, Florida was recognized nationally for the highest quality 4-H EFNEP program,” said Dr. Sue Fisher. Cook also initiated a program evaluation strategy that examined what children were learning through 4-H EFNEP and helped guide decisions about program development. She was also an early innovator in the use of satellite technology for training programs.
Although she was not a 4-H member growing up, Cook says that 4-H profoundly impacted her life. “My 4-H experience was “learn by doing” as I had the professional opportunity to create and innovate new programming models for 4-H in urban non-traditional settings with hard to reach audiences,” said Cook.
“Just like the setting we provide for youth volunteers, it was a supportive environment that let us fail and achieve all at the same time. The work undertaken to incorporate limited income youth and volunteers into the mainstream of 4-H programming has been duplicated in many places,” said Cook.
Youth participating in the 4-H EFNEP program also went to summer camp with 4-H. “The thrill of seeing their achievements personally and at the county, state, and national level is unparalleled,” said Cook. “EFNEP helped with opening relationships in some urban areas with youth agencies 4-H had never worked with before as well.”
She spearheaded the multi-disciplinary program called CHOICES designed to teach health, nutrition, and parenting skills to pregnant and young teen mothers. The CHOICES program curriculum was implemented statewide in Florida, and was later adopted for national use through the 4-H juried curriculum process. According to Cook, the point of the program was to “not let this be the determining factor of their future” and to help young women who were becoming parents gain the life skills and confidence they needed to be successful.
When he arrived at the state 4-H office in 1974, Jim Northrup said that Linda Cook was the first person he met, and he remembered her warm and friendly demeanor. Northrup and Cook shared office space, and he wrote, “I think you didn’t know how much you helped me get going on my duties.” Northrup and Cook both managed programs reaching out to disadvantaged youth.
Even after she started managing the 4-H EFNEP program, Cook continued to provide support for 4-H programs statewide in foods and nutrition. She also served as an advisor to the Florida 4-H Council, managed printing, and volunteer leader development. She managed the judges annually for the food and nutrition categories at Florida 4-H Congress. She retired as professor emeritus from the University of Florida’s Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences in 1999.
Also active in her church, community and the Delta Kappa Gamma Education Professional Society, Linda continues to support 4-H financially and manages the state foods and nutrition category demonstrations at Florida 4-H Congress.
She has provided leadership for several years to Epsilon Sigma Phi, the professional honorary organization for retired and current extension workers. She served for three years as executive director of the Florida Association of Family and Consumer Sciences.