Linking the World’s Nutrition Educators Via Cyberspace
Concerns related to nutrition and health from people around the world have many common themes and some specific regional considerations. Historically, dealing with questions from the general population has been left up to individuals or groups within a country or region of the planet. While international research fostered some collaborative efforts on large, well-documented nutritional concerns, solutions to day-to-day situations fell to the local nutrition professional or paraprofessional, usually with little or no access to help outside of the immediate vicinity.
A dietitian in southern Georgia might be able to interact with other dietitians within the state, at the land grant university or perhaps through the American Dietetic Association (ADA). But all of those contacts usually involved several phone calls and/or letters and took days or weeks to accomplish. A health care worker in rural Australia had very little chance of responding to a question from a local constituent if the question required information not available there or nearby. Certainly the idea of contacting someone elsewhere in Australia or on another continent was rarely a viable option.
With the advent of the personal computer and the international networking of computers, this situation has changed dramatically. Communication barriers of time and space have been virtually eliminated through the use of electronic mail (e-mail) and the ability to transfer all sorts of information instantly over the entire globe. The following essay describes an ongoing and successful international network of dietitians and nutritionists who specialize in providing food and nutrition information to the general public outside of the clinical setting.
A computer network for state Cooperative Extension professionals was established in Indiana in the late 1970s. By the late 1980s e-mail had become a common method of rapidly transmitting information to all 92 counties in the state. In 1991, using this e-mail capability , the author began to dispatch a weekly article related to foods and nutrition (the Electronic Food Rap) throughout the state. In 1992 an e-mail "alias" or list of e-mail addresses was created. This allowed nutrition information to be sent to the single alias address, and that information was then sent to about fifty state university Cooperative Extension foods and nutrition specialists throughout the United States.
Around the same time, Purdue University Cooperative Extension started using a software package called Almanac which allows the establishment of a computer host for e-mail groups. An e-mail group is an e-mail address that contains many other e-mail addresses. Like an alias, the e-mail group can be used to send a single message to a large number of people at the same time. Unlike the alias, which can only be accessed by the creator, the e-mail group address is available to anyone. Almanac software, like other software of this type, also allows individuals to "subscribe" to a group, stores messages that have been sent, and permits the retrieval of archived messages.
Seeing the potential for this software, the author requested permission to establish an e-mail group for Cooperative Extension specialists. Using the original alias list along with other communications to colleagues, an e-mail notice was sent in April, 1993 to about 60 people. The notice included instructions on how to subscribe to the group (called fnspec_mg or foods and nutrition specialist mail group), how to send messages and how to retrieve archived messages.
The introduction in the notice contained the following statements:
I have just set up an electronic mail address group that can be used by you (or anyone else) for sending messages to anyone who has joined (subscribed) to the group. The purpose of the group is for foods and nutrition specialists to be able to contact a large number of their colleagues with only one message. The information that follows will tell you how to get your e-mail address on to the group list and how to use it to send messages.
In the first few weeks of the group (hereafter referred to as "Fnspec"), fourteen people subscribed. The author posted several messages just to provide "food for thought." Over the next several months more and more nutrition educators became aware of Fnspec and added their addresses. Most of the subscribers were other foods and nutrition specialists, many of them also members of ADA, working at the state or federal level in the USDA/state Cooperative Extension Service. The general "conversation" within the group centered around questions regarding consumer food safety questions, issues of nutrition misinformation, and requests for published materials and/or developed foods and nutrition programs on specific topics of interest to the general public.
As Fnspec expanded, nutrition professionals outside of the Cooperative Extension Service became aware of it and started requesting permission to join. When Fnspec was established, the author had contemplated the choices regarding the limiting of subscriptions. A conscious decision was made to put no restrictions on joining Fnspec so that the widest possible interchange of resources and ideas would be obtained. If, at a later date, this resulted in a diminishing of the professional atmosphere of Fnspec, restrictions could then be applied. So far, this decision seems to have been vindicated as Fnspec has grown and flourished with a diverse group of foods and nutrition professionals.
One of the early, non-Extension entities to sign-on was ADA through the National Center for Nutrition and Dietetics. The staff members at ADA provided answers to resource questions as well as giving Fnspec early exposure to ADA press releases on issues before the general public. Within months, ADA's decision was seconded by several other organizations representing government, academia and industry including: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the National Agricultural Library's Food and Nutrition Information Center; the Nutrition Center at the Pennsylvania State University; the Kellogg Company; USDA's nutrition database operator through the University of Maryland, and other sections of USDA and the Food and Drug Administration; as well as some food commodity groups.
While organizations were discovering the value of Fnspec, other individual nutrition professionals were also learning of its existence. One of the major successes of Fnspec has been the connection of community nutrition/health professionals with those in academia and industry who are involved in basic food science research. There has been a genuine increase in the level of understanding about the concerns of the public related to the safety of the food supply, and the scientific facts regarding food safety. The food scientists have a better feel for how and why consumers have misinformed concerns over bacteria, pesticides, additives and health issues. Nutrition educators better understand what the research really shows about the health risks involved at various points in the food production process.
By the end of the first year Fnspec had over 100 subscribers. These included MS/PhDs, RDs, MDs, and home economists. And Fnspec had gone international! As more and more professionals discovered the power and potential of the Internet, more of them found their way to Fnspec. Also, those already on Fnspec were communicating with colleagues at meetings and via e-mail. Subscribers from the Netherlands, Australia and Canada have all become part of the worldwide network of professionals interested in educating the general public about foods and nutrition issues. Their participation has helped broaden the recognition of differing national health guidelines as well as unique foodstuffs.
An example of the international flavor of Fnspec is a discussion that occurred regarding a product called "vegemite." An inquiry from a consumer in the United States led to a message to Fnspec asking for information on the vegemite. The message resulted in a discussion running over several weeks and several continents. Vegemite is an Australian food that apparently is enjoyed immensely on that continent but has not gained much acceptance in the United States. The information on the product and its history, and the good-natured differences of opinion on its palatability were educational for those who participated in the discussion as well as those who just read the messages.
In the Netherlands, an advisory group to the national government found that Fnspec was a valuable source regarding various policies on health and nutrition issues which affect that nation as well. These policies addressed concerns by the public related to nutrition/disease and food safety issues. A recent posting for the Ontario Ministry of Food and Agriculture in Canada requested information on consumer guides about smoking meat.
After the first year the author began sending weekly Electronic Food Rap articles to Fnspec as well as the previously mentioned state-based group. The articles quickly demonstrated another value of Fnspec — the ability to multiply the exposure of information. Many of the subscribers were linked to other nutrition professionals either in their own states, through professional organizations or nationally. The articles were posted to many of these other sites resulting in broad dissemination of research-based food and nutrition information. The Nutrition Center at the Pennsylvania State University now places the articles on its PennPages electronic acquisition site. In one year, the articles were accessed and requested over 1,000 times.
Fnspec has been in operation for almost two and a half years and now has more than 350 subscribers. Over 3,000 messages have been exchanged between subscribers. Comments from subscribers in Australia have indicated that Fnspec provides the most consistent and factual information on nutrition yet found on the electronic interconnections. Another accolade came from the Nutrition Research Dietetic Practice Group (NRDPG) of ADA. NRDPG has its own e-mail group and postings are regularly exchanged between the two groups.
A recent food fad involved a substance called "Kombucha" or "mushroom" tea. Information regarding this tea was quickly posted on Fnspec and picked up by the NRDPG group. The information was used by a subscriber, an RD in the medical sciences at a state university, to provide facts to a local newspaper columnist. The RD stated, in an e-mail message to the supervisor of the Nutrition Research e-mail group:
Finding sufficient information to respond in a timely fashion would have required my dropping more important tasks to assist this journalist if I had not gleaned some little gems, printed them out, and filed for future reference. Thanks for the assistance!
The level of professionalism within Fnspec has remained consistently high, especially considering the open subscription policy of the group. Many groups on the Internet become nothing more than ideological pulpits for those with an unscientific fervor or a profit motive. Evidence of the quality of Fnspec comes from its subscribers including the editor of Bytingln, a computer newsletter for food and nutrition professionals. In an article entitled "A Personal On-Line Strategy," which dealt with how to wade through all of the extraneous information on the Internet, the editor, Sue Grossbauer, said:
Besides a few items on my "use-when-needed" list, I've found exactly two Internet options I'll stay with. One is the FNSpec group ... at Purdue University.The message postings, which are plentiful, are interesting. An e-mail question to a large group of professionals is an awesome way to answer a tough nutrition question, and certainly a more productive and fruitful method than calling everyone you know. Nevertheless, my "can't-miss" item is the "electronic food rap," sent to subscribers. The very first two of two I downloaded were of direct and immediate help in keeping me up with topics which Meta Media publishes. Others have helped me keep in touch with issues in nutrition I don't take enough time to read about. For me, they are a productivity-enhancer. That makes sense. (Bytingln 6(3):9-10, 1995)
As professionals around the world become more closely linked electronically, e-mail groups like Fnspec will play an increasingly more important role in providing an avenue for discussion and dissemination of information and ideas related to nutrition education for the public. Those involved in such endeavors will know that Fnspec is a place where proffered information is based on scientifically-sound research. If the information is suspect, Fnspec subscribers will quickly make it clear that there is disagreement regarding the facts presented. Colleagues in all countries will continue to expand their outreach because of the contacts and materials they have made through this project.