Back to where it all started

Clara Wicoff has returned home to serve as nutrition, food and health extension agent. She recently spent a year studying in London, where she worked on her master's of science in agricultural economics.

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September 29, 2021 - 10:25 AM

While studying at the University of Reading, Wicoff enjoyed a trip to the White Cliffs of Dover, a region of English coastline. Courtesy photo

As Clara Wicoff sat in her brand-new office at the Southwind Extension District in Iola, her laser-focus on fighting food insecurity became readily apparent. The room was bare, save for her laptop and a dozen or so books about global development and nutrition. A single plant, which a coworker gave her, was perched on the desk.

Not that Wicoff has had much time to think about office décor. Her new position as the Nutrition, Food and Health Extension Agent, which she began last week, is only the latest chapter in a breathless journey that has already carried her to Kansas State University, the halls of our nation’s capitol, and, most recently, halfway across the world.

Wicoff returned from a year at the University of Reading, a 45-minute train ride due west of London, at the beginning of this month. There, she worked on her master’s of science in agricultural economics as both a Marshall and Truman scholar, becoming K-State’s 15th student to ever receive the Marshall Scholarship and the university’s 35th student to be awarded the Truman Scholarship. Her thesis at the University of Reading focuses on the link between women’s empowerment and child nutrition in Haiti.  

Before venturing abroad, Wicoff, 24, graduated from K-State in May 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture economics, a secondary major in Global Food Systems Leadership and a minor in entomology. She was a National Merit Scholar and spent the summer of 2018, while Congress drafted the latest farm bill, in Washington, D.C. as a committee intern for the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

And now, finally, Wicoff is back home again. Back, in many ways, to where it all began. 

WICOFF graduated from Iola High School in 2016. During the summers of her junior and senior years, she volunteered at the USD 257 summer food service program. While there, as Wicoff tabulated the numbers of students and adults who came to eat, her passion for food security and child nutrition came to life.

It would be closer to the truth to say it became impossible to ignore. After all, Wicoff was seeing hungry kids, some she recognized from class, arrive to eat a free lunch. She knew that for many of them, this would be the only hot meal they’d eat all day. And while we often push hunger and nutrition aside, relegating them to the developing world and far-away places, Wicoff came to realize just how important food and nutrition programs were to people in her hometown.

All of a sudden, Wicoff understood that “these big policy decisions about food and child nutrition had a real impact. And to be able to put a face to that, to know that state and national policies had an impact on people I knew, was powerful.”

It has guided Wicoff’s life since.

FOOD INSECURITY refers to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s measure of lack of access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.

For Wicoff, access to healthy food is critical to building stronger communities. But the scale of the problem in southeast Kansas is daunting.

Feeding America, a nonprofit that coordinates a nationwide network of food banks, estimates 15.3% of Allen County, or about 1,920 residents, experience food insecurity on a regular basis. Statewide, the figure is 12.1%.

Recent U.S. census data reports that 17.7% of Allen County residents, and 26.7% of Iolans, live in poverty. Nationwide, approximately 12.3% of the population lives below the poverty line. Median household income in Allen County is $45,300; the rest of the country earns around $65,700.

These statistics don’t seem to intimidate Wicoff. “I’m really excited to give back to the communities I grew up in,” she reflected. “There’s a lot of need in southeast Kansas, and that makes it a good place for me to be.”

Wicoff also points to several initiatives that offer signs of progress. Double Up Food Bucks, which matches SNAP dollars spent on fresh fruits and vegetables, is widely available throughout the region. Allen County boasts several thriving Farmers’ Markets, and area grocery stores sell a variety of local products and fresh meats. And one that hits particularly close to home: for a second year, USDA has provided funding to ensure school lunches are free for all.

Clara Wicoff outside the entrance to K-State’s Manhattan campus.Courtesy photo

BASED in Iola, Wicoff will cover the entire Southwind district, one that spans Allen, Bourbon, Neosho and Woodson counties. She plans on developing programs to help educate the public about food, nutrition and wellness, along with a focus on food safety, food preservation, and diabetes. 

“Food touches all aspects of our lives,” she said. “It helps us connect with people. It helps us celebrate. It’s an integral part of life.” In her new role, she’s now focused on tackling the question: “How can we help people have healthy experiences with food?”

Wicoff notes two easy habits to start. First, shop from a list. And to avoid buying things you already have at home, survey your kitchen and pantry before heading out.

Wicoff outside the Southwind Extension District office in Iola.Photo by Tim Stauffer / Iola Register

Second, when at a restaurant, only order what you’ll actually eat. Then, if you take a box home, put it at the front of the fridge, not the back. 

Another important issue for Wicoff is helping others decipher confusing food labels. “If it says ‘Best by,’” she explains, “that just means it’s at its peak flavor at that date. It’s still safe to eat if it’s past the date. Use your common sense, taste and smell to decide to eat it.”

Use by’ is different,” says Wicoff. “It marks the last date recommended to consume the product. That’s an issue of food safety and should not be given the same flexibility.”

Yet Wicoff expressed a desire to learn just as much as she teaches. “I’m looking forward to continuing to learn about what our community members are looking for in programs as well,” she noted. “I think that’s a big part of what Extension is–making connections with people and forming relationships.” 

While not at work, Wicoff, who lives with her parents Joel and Lisa of Iola, enjoys spending time with her family, which includes younger brothers Isaiah, Henry and Luke. She also is an avid reader, likes to spend time on the local trails, and loves her pets. And yes, she’s already back to sleeping soundly, the jet lag from England long conquered and forgotten. One gets the impression not much can stand in Wicoff’s way.

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