- The Washington Times - Monday, September 3, 2001

When Usha Kalro appears, germs disappear. The nutritionist from the University of the District of Columbia, who lectures often of food safety, scares people into better hand-washing techniques that discourage the spread of bacteria. She does it the old-fashioned way, using a visual aid that she calls "my glit kit" to make her point.

"Anyone putting their hands in the small portable purple pod machine invariably is shocked into action when the ultraviolet light shows up multiple germs normally living on a hand's surface.

"It really opened up my eyes," says Sheila Golden, a teacher at the Phyllis Elizabeth May Child Development Center at 421 Alabama Ave. SE, reacting to Mrs. Kalro's advice after a talk the nutritionist gave there recently to the staff. Mrs. Kalro plans to talk to the children on the same subject soon.

What impressed Mrs. Golden most was learning the dangers of cross contamination how easily the potentially disease-causing germs are transferred from one person to another and one object to another.

Score another successful foray for Mrs. Kalro and her job as full-time extension agent in the fields of nutrition, diet and health for UDC. The position falls under the institution's Cooperative Extension Service, which is made possible because of the university's status as the country's only exclusively urban land-grant college.

That the District qualifies for such status may surprise many residents just as much as Mrs. Kalro's trick for a thorough hand washing. (Sing aloud a complete round of "Happy Birthday" before removing your hands from the soap and warm water, she advises.) The programs that fall under this rubric allow residents to enjoy many of the same services available to those living in rural areas of the country and, indeed, to nearly every American, since each state is home to at least one land-grant college.

One difference is that urban programs are tailored to the needs of city residents. Urban gardeners can have soil samples analyzed for a minimum fee of $4 in a campus laboratory, and anyone can take free classes in basic plumbing and home repair in a special workroom set up in UDC's Division of Community Outreach and Extension Services headquarters at 4340 Connecticut Ave. NW.

It also means that D.C. children can belong to 4-H Clubs just like the ones in farm areas, although the focus of their activities may differ since they are tailored to city life. At least one club from Roosevelt High School studies media production techniques as part of its activities, since the mission of land-grant colleges is to educate and inform constituents in matters useful in their everyday lives.

And on a green and fertile 143-acre plot not far from the Department of Agriculture's Experimental Station in Beltsville, the Agricultural Experiment Station that is part of the division is growing 7,000 hardwood tree seedlings that will eventually shade D.C. streets and park areas. Several of these already have been put in place in a project begun 15 months ago.

"The 4-H Club members in the city don't raise farm animals; they don't count sheep," says Roland Holstead, the division's dean and director, with a laugh when asked about the difference between land-grant programs in the District and others set up by Congress long ago in every state and territory.

The history of the land-grant institutional designation goes back to 1862 and passage by Congress of what is known as the Morrill Act, Mr. Holstead explains. It was in response to a growing demand for agricultural and technical skills. (The Land-Grant College Act of 1862 was introduced by Rep. Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont. A second Morrill Act was passed in 1890.)

The original mission was "to teach agriculture, military tactics, as well as classical studies so that members of the working classes could obtain a liberal, practical education," according to a statement published by the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.

Research work done by agricultural experiment station programs was intended to benefit the extension service branch, whose agents would pass along information directly to the people they serve.

UDC's land-grant activities fall under the Agriculture Department's Cooperative State Research Education and Extension Service (CSREES), which is headed by Colien Hefferan. She backs Mr. Holstead's efforts all the way, praising UDC for narrowing the focus of its land-grant activities in the past 11/2 years to be more in line with its mission.

"Three or four years ago, I was one of those saying, 'What in the world are we doing with agricultural research in the District?' But the discipline they have applied, and the leadership, demonstrates they can contribute to life here," Ms. Hefferan says. One example, she says, is that "they aren't trying to do scientific research on row crops but on the issues involved in having healthy food."

The city's 4-H Club program, she adds, "isn't about raising steers but about raising kids."

Mr. Holstead, who has a doctorate in sociology from the University of Connecticut, wears a total of five hats and oversees several programs outside the land-grant arena. Most of the day he lives in the land of facts, figures and funding challenges.

The D.C. government — his employer because UDC is a public institution — must come up with funds to match most of the sums given it annually from the Agriculture Department for UDC's land-grant functions. His salary of $96,000 counts as matching funds, he says, since he spends 80 percent of his time on land-grant duties. (His other supervisory duties as a university official involve adult education and community-related research projects.)

He cheerfully pulls out one report and chart after the other, as proof that his division is fulfilling its mandate. Cooperative Extension receives $998,000 in federal money annually, and Agricultural Extension gets $659,000, both of which must be matched outright or in kind.

Like the land-grant program, UDC as a whole is in a new phase, he points out. An interim president was appointed in July. All new deans were named two years ago, which is when Mr. Holstead was hired, and student enrollment is slightly up, by 2 percent or 3 percent, he says. Mayor Anthony Williams has said he is committed to keeping it as a four-year comprehensive college.

The Cooperative Extension Service that comes under Mr. Holstead's office reaches as many as 20,000 people a year, he says. The Agricultural Experiment Station has a far less public profile since its work involves long-term research far from the university's main campus in the District's Northwest.

The tree-planting project under way at Beltsville has been given support by both the Casey Foundation — money given to the city by arts patron Betty Brown Casey to boost the growth of trees in the District — and the National Tree Trust.

"We're also involved in the Department of Public Works' Adopt-A-Tree program," says Mr. Holstead, mentioning Martin Luther King Avenue in Anacostia as the first block chosen.

Organic gardening methods and crop yields seeing what vegetables do well in what weather — are other ongoing subjects for research. Horticultural technician Roy Lycorish and his supervisor, Gloria Wyche-Moore, take special pride in their flourishing coffee, orange and pineapple plants — tropical plants they have grown successfully in the local climate.

Extension program efforts, Mr. Holstead says, include a program of teaching public school teachers about the environment and water quality with the idea that the information then gets passed along to students.

"I'm here because I want to educate the public in gardening matters," says Extension Service Agriculture and Natural Resources specialist Sandra Farber, who also runs the division's Master Gardener program. (This is an eight-week certification course costing $120.) "I'm here for people to call, and I will answer questions as best I can: soil testing, plant problems, you name it."

The public can call Extension Service specialists and agents at 202/274-7115.

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