Bringing Black Culture to the Table

Marcus McFarland knows and shares the history of the Black professionals who preceded him as agents with NC State Cooperative Extension. He’s following their lead as the first Black man to serve as a family and consumer science (FCS) agent in Union County, teaching children and adults about healthy cooking and habits, food safety and food preservation. McFarland brings his personal and cultural connections to food and health to the table.

A Charlotte, North Carolina, native, McFarland grew up near Union County, located just southeast of Charlotte.

“I’m from a southern Black family,” McFarland says. “A lot of what I remember and think about when it comes to food is the memories of family dinners, and I still have an appreciation for the food.”

One of his favorite dishes that his grandmother and mother would make is homemade yeast rolls, but his family also ate a lot of fruit and vegetables.

“Everybody thinks in the South, it’s nothing but biscuits and everything fried,” explains McFarland. “But really, I come from a family of small, sustainable sustenance farmers and sharecroppers. Most of the time what was affordable was growing fruits and vegetables.”

Joining NC State Extension

McFarland has always enjoyed helping others and his community, and he volunteered often for organizations like Habitat for Humanity. He was also interested in science and thought he wanted to go into health care to blend his interests, but he quickly found a love for nutrition and dietetics at Appalachian State University.

Marcus McFarland mashing bananas
Marcus McFarland teaching a class.

After graduation, McFarland joined the AmeriCorps’ FoodCorps program, where he had the opportunity to teach kids in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system about healthy eating, growing their own food and how to cook. While in that program, one of the leaders, Elizabeth Driscoll, mentioned an open position as an FCS agent in Union County.

“I remember her telling us, ‘This is a great opportunity to continue that passion for teaching our community about nutrition, health and wellness,” says McFarland.

After two years in FoodCorps, he started as an FCS agent, a role he has held since 2018.

“I teach a simplistic look at nutrition,” McFarland says. “It’s just eating more fruits and vegetables, thinking about what and how much you put into your body, and emphasizing it’s not about taking away things you enjoy.”

Making a Difference 

As the first Black male agent in the county, McFarland knows the impact he can have.

“I want to make sure that I am that representation for Black folks, so that they see, ‘Wow, there is this Black man who looks like me, who talks like me, who shares very similar cultural distinctions as me.’”

For McFarland and many other families, food has always been at the forefront of their culture. Though some of his childhood meals aren’t considered the healthiest options, McFarland doesn’t feel he has to stop eating them. Instead, he has learned how to make some of them healthier or to balance the less healthy meals with healthier ones, such as eating more fruits and vegetables with his grandmother’s yeast rolls.

“I think cultural connection and nutrition can exist at the same time,” McFarland says. “When they exist at the same time, you’re able to preserve and honor your culture. I feel like in a lot of communities of color, they may see what they’re eating as not nutritious or healthy, but that’s not the case a lot of times.

“We can make better, healthier impacts on ourselves while still getting to enjoy the foods that we have enjoyed for years.”

Celebrating Black History

McFarland also teaches others about those who have come before him. He published Celebrating Black History in Extension in honor of Black History Month, a post highlighting the contributions of African Americans in agriculture, family and consumer sciences, and 4-H in North Carolina.

“I wanted to know more about the history behind our Black Extension agents, along with their contributions and the challenges they may have faced in regards to what it was like working during segregation.”

Though working with NC State Extension looks different now, there’s a lot of work still to be done with equal representation, and McFarland hopes to continue increasing nutrition equality among underserved communities.

“One day, hopefully, there will be more Black men in nutrition and family and consumer sciences who are able to teach about health and impact their specific populations so we all can have a chance to increase our quality of life.”

This post was originally published in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences News.