Merging Fitness and Nutrition to Create Healthy Lifestyles
Umekia “Mickey” Taylor ’83 (CAHNR) merges fitness and nutrition to help people create healthy lifestyles. She is a community nutrition extension educator and the supervisor for Extension’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) in New Haven County. “UConn Extension’s nutrition outreach education is valuable because we meet people where they are. Then, we bring them to whatever level they want to go to,” Mickey says. “We’re here to serve the people of Connecticut and bring value to their lives.”
Growing up in Meriden, she always had an interest in food and experimented with recipes in her family’s kitchen. She wanted a health-related career that included food and education. Taylor found a brochure in her high school guidance department about the Allied Health Sciences dietetics program at UConn. She had not heard about it this career, but it intrigued her.
Seniors in UConn’s dietetics program complete different practicums. Taylor gravitated towards the community nutrition practicum. She went on to earn her master of science degree in human performance from Southern Connecticut State University. “I wanted to incorporate fitness as a thread in my career,” she says. “Fitness is practical choices too. Parking farther away from your destination and walking makes a significant difference. Speed walking while running errands, all these small actions add up.”
Her first role was the nutritionist with the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program in New Haven. Taylor is bilingual and immersed in the Spanish language as she worked with the program participants. She began her career with UConn Extension in 1993.
“In working with EFNEP, there’s a lot of linkages we make with other fields in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources and throughout UConn,” Taylor says. “I had close relationships with the UConn 4-H program through Wanda Little, who is a retired UConn 4-H educator and was my mentor. I’ve kept that model in my programming.”
Taylor works with collaborative teams at UConn. One of these is the People Active on Trails for Health and Sustainability (PATHS) team. The team uses trails and exercise to improve health outcomes in residents statewide. Extension educators are not islands, and she emphasizes the benefits of different expertise.
The rewards of being an Extension educator are when participants are engaged and learning – that is when you can make an impact. Taylor and the EFNEP teamwork with people over time. They start slight changes with them that have positive impacts on their health.
“Nutrition involves balance and variety is important,” she says. “You don’t need to go to one extreme or another. We all have cravings, and it is okay to have a treat occasionally, and then get back to healthy eating. A diet should be a well-balanced approach and fun.”
New discoveries and recommendations challenge nutrition and health educators. All science-based educators face this same challenge. This causes mistrust or negative public perceptions. Taylor follows the research and educates her audiences as the science changes. She addresses those misconceptions because people are looking for accurate information.
Taylor’s recent focus is on social media, online education, and training community leaders. “I love the model where we work with teens and then they teach nutrition education in their communities,” she says. Taylor had a USDA-AFRI grant to build this model and is pursuing another grant for further work in the field. Other 4-H and nutrition programs replicated her project.
The past few years have also highlighted the racial inequities that still exist. Taylor participated in UConn’s Anti-Black Racism Course. She connected to the topics and concepts as an African American woman whose parents are from South Carolina. She found the course enlightening, and timely in the wake of violence, hate crimes and injustice against black and brown people. She continues engaging in topical discussions with the Extension Anti-Racism Learning Group.
Taylor’s community nutrition and fitness programs improve the lives of Connecticut residents. Her work is representative of the land-grant mission as she engages audiences with UConn’s research and teaching. Taylor brings enthusiasm and creativity to community nutrition and established models that are enhancing the lives of residents across the nation.
Article by Stacey Stearns