WASHINGTON — Locally-sourced turkeys may be on the rise, but locally-sourced advice on how to cook the birds is not.
A Maryland home cook used to be able to call a county extension office of the University of Maryland and talk with a home economist about how to cook a Thanksgiving turkey.
But these days, with budget woes triggering staff cuts in government offices across the nation, home economists have been economized almost out of business.
Not too long ago, there was at least one food science educator on the staff of each county’s University of Maryland Extension office, says Nick Place, associate director of the extension.
“But over the past few years, because of budget cuts, we no longer have the luxury” of staffing those positions, he says.
Instead, the extension is “moving toward the cluster program, so that educators have responsibilities across multiple regions,” Place says.
That way, if someone calls into a county extension office looking to talk turkey but there’s not a certified food specialist in the office, the caller is referred to a specialist in another county extension office who is certified.
The University of Maryland Extension is a public education service run by the state’s two land-grant universities (at College Park and Eastern Shore) to make their resources available to Maryland residents.
With an extension office in each county and one in Baltimore City, Maryland’s Extension Service has been serving Marylanders since the early 1900s, Place says.
It’s “the front door to the university,” he adds.
In earlier decades, the extension offices had “homemaker clubs” where county residents could learn the proper procedures for canning and pickling fruits and vegetables, and for cooking poultry, says Crystal Terhune, a family and consumer scientist with a background in social work and financial management at Caroline County’s Extension office.
Now, those clubs are mostly gone.
Caroline County’s Extension office doesn’t have a food specialist on staff, so when county residents call the office with questions about food preparation and cooking, Terhune directs them either to a food specialist in another county, or to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s meat and poultry hotline.
“Better to send them to where I know someone will pick up the phone and answer the question right away,” Terhune says.
The head office of the University of Maryland Extension used to have a nutrition and food safety professor on staff from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, but that position has been vacant for the past few months.
Because of budget constraints, “positions are not automatically filled when somebody retires or leaves,” says Liat Mackey, an educator and licensed dietician and nutritionist at the extension office of St. Mary’s County.
“We’re hoping that we’ll have a [new] food safety specialist who will provide some leadership for our food safety program,” she says.
But that’s not likely to happen any time soon.
“It would be great to go back to having that strong foundation like we had” in the past, with one food science specialist directing the program, says Place, “but with the realities of the economic climate that we’re in, I don’t foresee that in the near future.”