Sarifa Khan’s gentle encouragement towards better nutritional health and the sincere warmth in her voice are evident from the minute you begin speaking with her. As a UMass Extension nutrition educator, she helps adults, teen parents, parents in shelters, and children in summer camps make smart nutritional choices through the “EFNEP” and “SNAP-ED” programs serving the communities of the western region of the state. (EFNEP stands for Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, it has been a mainstay of federally-funded nutrition education for low-income individuals since 1969. SNAP-Ed is the nutrition education accompaniment to the federally-funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps.)
Since 2000, Khan has educated low-income families with children up to age 18. She leads adults in a series of group sessions about nutrition, food shopping, and food safety while engaging participants in group discussions, cooking demonstrations, food tasting, fun physical activities, and other hands-on learning. In the summer, she attends camp sessions in Westfield and Springfield where she teaches children about healthy food and beverage choices, food preparation, and related skills; and these lessons are not just for the children! Sarifa loves hearing stories from parents about nutrition information their children have learned in programs she and her colleagues have taught across the region.
A typical day for Khan would include time at a community center in Springfield where she would teach one of seven lessons from the “Choices: Steps Towards Health” curriculum, an interactive dialogue-based curriculum. She shares the importance of incorporating more fruits and vegetables into diets. Since some of her participants do not like cooked vegetables, she offers a tasty choice: cucumber or tomato salsa, both flavorful and low in fat. And that simple change can make a big difference in the way people consider new food choices and practical changes.
A big challenge for her participants is food shopping. Khan teaches them to make good choices with foods that are nutritious and culturally-relevant and to avoid purchases that are calorie-deficient (sodas, pre-packaged, fat-laden snacks). She has a mantra, “Get in and out of the store quickly.” The more time people spend in a store; the more food they buy. Placement of foods on shelves is a subtle but important message-she invites them to go around the exterior where less junk food is sold. Khan also encourages people to make lists before they shop, to eat first so they are not shopping while hungry, and to use coupons to save money.
Changes in the scope of her job since she began are mostly around the 2015 Dietary Guidelines and the introduction of “MyPlate.” Generally, more fruits and vegetables and less fat and sodium is recommended. Recipes have changed since 2000. For example, low fat yogurt may be substituted for higher fat ingredients like whipped cream.
Khan was born in Laos. When she was 19, she escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand where she lived for three years. Following that challenging start to life, she was sponsored and immigrated to the United States where she has lived since 1986. Her many outside interests include her private practice in therapeutic massage, running and sewing.
A friend strongly encouraged her to apply for a job at UMass Extension in 2000. She says her greatest joy in this job is witnessing substantial changes in participants’ food choices. At the beginning of her six-week course, she will hear stories of people that use 10 packets of sugar in their coffee: by the end of her series, they are proud to tell her they now use only two packets of sugar. Or when a spouse shares news of dietary changes in their partner’s struggle with health issues because of something she has taught from MyPlate, she feels delighted. “That is the best part of my job and why I keep wanting to do this work.” Khan has some very lucky clients.