Heather Peracchio Recognized for Community Contributions

man and woman with an award
Heather Peracchio receiving her 40 Under 40 award from P.J. Prunty, President of the Danbury Chamber of Commerce.

UConn Extension professionals work in communities throughout the state, to apply the university’s research in practical settings and help improve lives. Heather Peracchio, an Extension professional based in Fairfield County, exemplifies these attributes for her work in community nutrition.

Peracchio, a registered dietitian and certified dietitian-nutritionist, joined UConn Extension in 2012, after receiving her Master of Science from the UConn Department of Allied Health Sciences and serving four years as an assistant extension educator with them. This summer, she was recognized as a 40 Under 40 award recipient for Fairfield County.

Fairfield County 40 Under 40 Honorees are diverse, passionate, and committed difference makers that are transforming the county through their professional and community contributions. In a typical year, the nomination pool exceeds 250 submissions making the 40 Under 40 Awards one of the premier recognition opportunities in the region. Following a rigorous review and selection process, all Honorees are chosen by a judging panel of past 40 Under 40 winners, community leaders, and program hosts and sponsors, based on professional and community achievements.

What is often forgotten by those who have healthy nutrition and access to foods that make them feel energized and satiated, is how hard it is to go about daily tasks, especially work responsibilities, while feeling hungry. Nutrition plays a vital role as it provides the energy needed for life. However, when individuals lack the knowledge of its significance or the means to access nutritious food, their focus shifts from thriving in various aspects of life, including work, to merely surviving. Peracchio is giving people a chance to fuel their bodies in a way that will allow them the energy and fulfillment to go above and beyond. When participants are supported by a nutritious diet, companies will flourish with new and bright ideas.

With Extension, Peracchio is the supervisor of the county Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) and the UConn Extension Center Coordinator for Fairfield County. Her accomplishments are many, improving the quality of life for those who reside in Fairfield County. She has designed and delivered educational programs that provide nutrition education to low-income families. Peracchio also works as the SNAP-Ed Food Security – Program Educator, and has since April 2012, engaging local and state partners such as schools, community centers, farms, senior centers, and food banks by providing nutrition presentations and series using science-based curriculum. These include Families Eating Smart and Moving More; Choosing Health: Food, Fun and Fitness; Teen Cuisine; Eat Smart Live Strong; Seniors Eating Well.

Peracchio works collaboratively with community partners to seek funding and create timely and relevant programming. Examples include a partnership with the Danbury Farmers Market Community Collaborative where she secured $13,000 in Covid-19 resiliency funding to provide local produce boxes and nutrition education to urban families who had limited access to the farmers’ market. Another partnership with the Walnut Hill Church yielded $16,000 for her efforts through Share Our Strength Food Insecurity grant reaching families with children aged 0-5 to provide food and cooking skills.

As the EFNEP supervisor, Peracchio supervises and works with the program assistant and EFNEP program aide. Together they plan, organize and implement series of nutrition education classes for diverse youth and adult audiences throughout Fairfield County. Her collaborative projects including incorporating EFNEP education within the Growing Gardens Growing Health project in Norwalk, 4-H Teen Urban Gardening Project in Bridgeport and the 4-H Soccer and Nutrition program in Danbury. With the assistance of the interns, she supervises from UConn Extension and Nuvance Hospital Dietetic Internship (Norwalk and Danbury hospitals), an impact has been made on the health and nutrition in Fairfield County communities.

“Heather is one of those leaders who leads by example, she does not just tell people what to do, she is right there with them. She creates a highly collaborative environment where all get to contribute. She inspires those on the team to always look for more ways provide the education a training that helps grow people. Like the food she helps to get into the hands of the needy, she also brings a spirit to those she works with that encourages them to grow themselves,” said Scott Farrell, a community partner and assistant director of admissions at Naugatuck Valley Community College.

Peracchio creates shared goals that help inspire and motivate those in need to live their best life. She always creates a positive and inclusive work environment where all get to contribute and grow as individuals. Through her leadership she established partnerships with 60 preschool centers, 30 public schools and 25 food pantries. Peracchio knows how to bring the proverbial village, in this case Fairfield County, together to support its residents while feeding both their body and mind.

“I believe that what sets Heather apart from others is her compassion and willingness to help,” Farrell continued. “She is always supporting those around her, be it her work family, to those moms in her mom group or others in the community, to her own family where she is a living example to her three kids of what it means to care and make a difference. She just does not say things are important, she gets involved with the organization that can impact the people she serves.”

Her service to the community includes the Connecticut Food Policy Council, Danbury Farmers’ Market Community Collaborative, Norwalk Food Providers, Danbury Food Collaborative, Connecticut Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics board of directors, and many others.

As they say, actions speak louder than words and Peracchio is always on the go and ready to make things happen. Learn more about the UConn EFNEP program and the resources available statewide at efnep.uconn.edu.

Author: Combined Reports

Eli Moskowitz – Summer Intern Spotlight

My name is Eli Moskowitz, and I am from Cheshire, Connecticut. I am a rising junior at UConn as a Nutritional Sciences major with a sports nutrition minor. I am currently in the Didactic Program in Dietetics. My goal after graduation is to be a Registered Dietitian and to help the public and address their nutritional needs.

Going into this internship I did not have much experience in the field of nutrition. Luckily, I have an exceptional supervisor who has set a great example and guided me through this internship. In the UConn Extension building, there are several other educators and staff who all do completely different tasks as part of the Extension team . Through these individuals, I have a completely new perspective on nutrition. I never realized how the gardening industry has such a tremendous impact on people’s health. Growing and cooking your own food is one of the healthiest ways to consume your meals. I have been able to apply what I have learned about gardening and garden maintenance from the Master Gardeners in order to help others.

One of my favorite programs through this internship was when I helped teach and prepare lessons with the Norwalk Health Department at the Growing Gardens, Growing Health which is at Fodor Farm in Norwalk. We provide eight different classes during this program. I led a youth group and taught them about the negative effects of sugary drinks and better alternatives for healthy beverages. I presented physical demonstrations of how much sugar is in some sodas and the participants were shocked. I also showed them how to read serving sizes as well as sugar in grams. In fact, yesterday when I was teaching one of these programs, a young child told me how much sugar was in her drink and she told me whether it was healthy or not. This gave me a sense of pride and happiness in both my students and in myself. I was glad to see that they were taking my lessons and applying them to their lives!

During the second half of this program, we go down to the community garden and help families maintain and cultivate into their garden. Every family has their own raised garden to plant what they like. Norwalk Health Department provides all types of seeds and plants, and my role is to assist in the production and growth of their gardens. The kids have so much fun planting fruits and vegetables, and the parents are very happy to see their kids infatuated with nutrition.

At the Norwalk Growing Gardens, Growing Health Program I have worked with amazing women who are part of the Norwalk Health Department and work closely with the UConn Extension. I learned what they do for their communities. Before I did not know anything about these jobs, and now I feel well informed about what they do and how they collaborate with dietitians. It has made me feel more secure and optimistic about my future in this field.

Another fun program I assisted in was the Danbury Farmers Market. I woke up in the morning of the market, worrying about the rainy forecast. The organizers had a great idea to move it to the parking garage. I have never been to a farmers market in a parking garage, but it worked perfectly. All the vendors had enough space and there was a great turnout. We, as UConn Extension, provided two nutrition lessons with cooking demonstrations. My supervisor, coworker and I led the cooking demonstrations with approximately 30 people in each group. We made a delicious simple green salad and gave each participant a copy of the recipe.

These are just two of the several programs I will help lead throughout this internship. I have gained an incredible amount of knowledge and experience, and my confidence in public speaking has increased. I never led a discussion for such a large group of people prior to this internship. I learned that one of the best parts of this experience is the rewarding feeling you get from knowing your audience is going to benefit from your teaching efforts. I have met many people with diverse jobs that have taught me how their organizations work. I have obtained advice from them that I will take all throughout my career. With the knowledge I have received from my coworkers, and the experience I have gained from my programs, I feel I have taken a big leap into the world of nutrition.

Cultivating Education and Food Security with the Master Gardeners

fruit on a persimmon tree with green leaves in backgroundOn Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings from early spring through fall, you can find dedicated groups of Master Gardeners lovingly cultivating an organic Demonstration Vegetable Garden at the Fairfield County Extension Center site in Bethel. By summer, the garden is a beautiful oasis teeming with butterflies, and pollinators as volunteers harvest tomatoes, potatoes, beans, and other organic vegetables to donate to area food pantries. In addition to vegetables, the bountiful harvests include a variety of fresh herbs, and gorgeous annual flowers. Recently, the Master Gardeners have collaborated with Extension’s Food and Nutrition EFNEP and SNAP-Ed programs to provide clients with nutritious recipes in both Spanish and English to accompany their produce. Harvests continue all season long and food pantry drop offs are rotated to share the bounty. Among the area organizations who benefit from the donations are the Brookfield Food Pantry, Faith Food Pantry in Newtown, Daily Bread in Danbury, and the Bethel Food Pantry.

The 3,000 square foot garden was started in 2013 by a group of Master Gardener interns excited to assist food insecure clients, and at the same time educate the public about Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and best garden practices. Each year additional Master Gardeners have joined the group and added to the garden’s infrastructure. The garden now has numerous raised beds, an irrigation system, tunnels to protect brassica crops from cabbageworms, and a blueberry enclosure to keep hungry birds at bay.

Advanced Master Gardener, Andrea Sarnik, began working in the garden in 2018. In 2020, Andrea joined Barbara Stauder as a project co-captain. Andrea explains, “The garden’s primary mission is to serve as an educational tool. It does that in a multitude of ways. The garden itself is a showcase of many varieties of vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers. We receive many visitors on Saturdays when we open the garden during the Farmer’s Market. Visitors get ideas on things they might try and get answers to questions regarding gardening from the Master Gardener volunteers. The garden is marked with signs identifying the crops and informational signs such as companion planting and integrated pest management.”

In addition to the educational signage, a small rain garden display hugs the garden shed and a rain barrel system catches water from its roof. A three-bin compost system sits just outside thegraph showing garden produce totals from 2017 through 2022 garden gate. This garden is definitely all about education, but clients are not the only ones who benefit. New interns join the group each year as they pursue their Master Gardener certification. As Andrea Sarnik adds, “Master Gardener interns obtain a broad array of information from the more senior Master Gardeners and even the seasoned gardeners continue to learn as they encounter issues and exchange information.”

Each winter the group of about 30 volunteers meet to plan for the new season. They work to extend the season by careful planning, incorporating more early and late blooming crops, seeking out pest and disease resistant varieties, and discussing other ways to increase harvests and productivity. The enthusiastic group weighs their harvests and tracks their crops with numerous spreadsheets, noting weather and pest issues. “Most years show an increase in total pounds of produce donated with our current top year total of 1365 pounds,” Andrea remarks. Clearly, the Master Gardener’s methods are successful.

three women in a shed with vegetables and blueberries harvested from gardenThis season, the group has already donated hundreds of pounds of produce, having started early harvesting garlic, onions, and cole crops. With the cool, rainy spring, the tomatoes are a bit behind with many green fruits waiting for more sunshine to sweeten and ripen them. This year, over five years after planting, the young native persimmon tree outside the garden will finally fruit. One of the young pawpaw trees also has a few potato shaped fruits for the first time. The Master Gardeners are excited by this development and are already envisioning another abundant harvest to share with their friends at the local food pantries.

To learn more about the Extension Master Gardener Program, which is offered in multiple locations throughout the state, visit our website at https://mastergardener.uconn.edu/. Applications will be available by the end of August for the 2024 program.

Article by Sandi Wilson, Fairfield County Master Gardener Coordinator

Nutrition Education in Action

group of people under a tent outdoorsExtension is out and about – and you may run into us at a local event. Our nutrition educators were at two events on Saturday, September 17th.
First, the public learned how “Healthy Eating can Boost Your Immune System” through two on-site classes and cooking demonstrations at the Danbury Farmers’ Market. Participants learned how to prepare fiesta rice salad with local farm fresh ingredients. This program reached 64 people. Assistant Extension Educator, Heather Peracchio. Fairfield County Program Aide, Juliana Restrepo-Marin and Nuvance Health Dietetic Intern Jillian Stickles.
Then, in the afternoon, UConn Extension participated in the Second Annual Hispanic Heritage Festival sharing bilingual nutrition tips for families. We reached over 75 participants.

Meet the UConn 4-H Legends

UConn 4-H Legends soccer group
The UConn 4-H Legends at a pre-COVID event.

Meet the UConn 4-H Legends, a soccer playing 4-H club in Danbury, CT that’s been in existence for about three years.  This 35-member club, composed of boys and girls, has several projects:  sports, nutrition, leadership and community service. Although they do a variety of things, they are at the soccer field 3 times a week, improving their soccer skills and learning teamwork, personal responsibility, goal setting, decision making, and creative problem solving. Leader Anna Loor and her coaches, Julio Buestan and Narcisa Tenezaca lead and facilitate the club.

Until Covid 19 struck, 4-H Legends participated in soccer tournaments every month. Healthy snacks are part of the nutrition education and soccer practice. At monthly Family Nights Out, youth and their families increase their nutrition knowledge while making a group healthy meal for everyone to eat.

As a multi-disciplinary effort of the Fairfield County UConn Extension office, Heather Peracchio, Community Nutrition Educator, registered dietician organized and taught the classes at the Family Nights Out. German Cutz, our former Sustainable Community Educator organized the soccer portion, and Ede Valiquette, 4-H Educator, worked with the adult leaders to support the 4-H club.

As with any 4-H club, community service is a priority. At their monthly business meetings, the club discuses and makes decisions regarding service projects for the year. Although they have done a variety of projects, their “best” one was perhaps conducted this year, “Celebrating our Heroes”.  In “Celebrating our Heroes”, Legends soccer coach and chef, Julio Buestan helped the Legends, prepare 150 meals for healthcare workers at Danbury Hospitals during the height of the Covid 19 virus outbreak.

Article by Edith Valiquette, Extension 4-H Educator

Fairfield County Master Gardener Projects

Sandi Wilson, Fairfield County Master Gardener Coordinator, spotlights three of the signature projects that volunteers have been working on:

vegetable gardenThe Fairfield County Demonstration Vegetable Garden – Bethel, CT

In November the Master Gardeners were putting the garden to bed for the season. Each year, they analyze what worked and what didn’t in the garden and begin to formulate their plan for next year. The demo garden team decided that the apple and pear trees were too high maintenance and in order to be fruitful would require more inputs than what this low maintenance and organic minded team desired. They removed the trees and will be substituting native paw paws that they hope will thrive with less care and inputs. The irrigation system worked great this year, and the crew made a few additional adjustments to the system to improve its efficiency.

As you know the Master Gardeners donate all the vegetables and herbs it produces to area food banks. In 2016, 656 pounds of produce, plus bundled herbs and flowers were donated to local organizations. In 2017, despite a slow start because of cool weather, the garden ultimately yielded 755 pounds of produce! The following organizations received donations during the season: Newtown Social Services, and the Faith Food Pantry in Newtown, The Brookfield Pantry, Friends of Brookfield Seniors, and the St James Daily Bread Pantry in Brookfield, and the Salvation Army in Danbury. This garden is not only a beautiful example of a working and productive vegetable garden, it is also used as a teaching tool for the community. Every Saturday, docent led tours are given to the public, who frequent the Farmer’s Market also held on the grounds. Master Gardeners teach Integrated Pest Management practices, cultural techniques, and other sustainable practices to visitors.

The Giving Garden – Brookfield, CT

This organic vegetable garden was established in 2010. Various Master Gardeners have participated in planting, maintaining, and harvesting this teaching garden over the years. Close to 1,000 pounds of produce is harvested from the garden each year and donated to area food pantries and soup kitchens! Primary recipients of the produce include food pantries in Brookfield, Danbury, and New Milford, and the Dorothy Day Soup Kitchen in Danbury. The garden is also used as a teaching garden for other Master Gardeners and the public. It is also frequented by area high school “key club” members who learn about sustainable practices, IPM methods, and the importance of volunteerism.

The Victory Garden – Newtown, CT

Master Gardeners are also involved with this 1/2 acre community garden that shares the bounty at the Fairfield Hills Campus. The garden started 8 years ago offers rows which are adopted by Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops, Ability Beyond Disability, and other community groups. The vegetables, fruits and flowers grown are donated to the Faith Food Pantry, Nunnawauk Meadows, a low income senior housing facility, and to Newtown Social Services.

Fighting the Good Food Fight

Connecticut Farmers, UConn Fighting The Good Food Fight

By Jessica Griffin
On August 24, 2014

Clemson cucumbersAs processed foods loaded with fat, sugars and salt, become increasingly cheap and convenient for Americans, the fight to maintain health and nutrition becomes more and more relevant. In the spirit of spreading awareness for the importance of making good choices while purchasing food, a nutritional outreach program, one of many across Connecticut, is occurring through UConn’s College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources (CAHNR) and UConn Extension.

These outreach programs take place at Connecticut farmers’ markets in east Bridgeport and Danbury. The Farmers’ Market in Bridgeport is run in collaboration with Wholesome Wave, a national organization based in Bridgeport dedicated to increasing affordability and availability of fresh foods to Americans.

The Danbury Farmers’ Market is run by the Danbury Farmers’ Market Community Collaborative (DFMCC) “Better Health Through Better Food” initiative.

Heather Peracchio, a dietitian and UConn Masters in Allied Health Sciences ’08 alumna, has been working as an educator at farmers’ markets since 2006. At the farmers’ market, she gives out healthy recipes, answers questions and presents to the public about making the best nutritional choices.

Read more…

4-H Recognition


Connecticut State Representative Dan Carter was our special guest at the Robotics and Technology recognition night. Two groups of children and youth from Danbury completed a 10-week pilot program. Participants built and programmed robots using laptops and artificial intelligence bricks. Before this program none of the participants was a 4-H member. At the end of the program nearly 30 children and youth became new UConn Extension 4-Hers.

Urban Agriculture Program

A group of 13 Hispanic adults from Danbury and Bridgeport are participating in an Urban Agriculture program. This UConn Extension program has been designed in a way that students learn the science behind agriculture (botany, soils, vegetable production, integrated pest management, etc.), apply their knowledge by producing vegetables, and promotes entrepreneurship by allowing students sell their produce at a local Farmer’s Market.
(Back row left-rigth back): Juan Guallpa, Saul Morocho, Vicente Garcia, Simon Sucuz, Jose Rivera, Leonardo Cordova, Rolando Davila
Front row left-right: Patricia Morocho, Laura Rivera, Partha Loor, Rosa Panza, Maria Lojano.
group at Danbury Farmers' Marketurban agriculture students at Danbury Farmers' Market
At left: Danbury’s Mayor Mark Boughton visiting UConn Extension Urban Agriculture students at Danbury Farmer’s Market on June 27th.
At right: Connecticut State Representative David Arconti Jr. visiting UConn Extension Urban Agriculture students at Danbury Farmer’s Market on June 27th.