sealPurdue News

October 31, 1997

Indiana 4-H aims to raise prize kids, not prize livestock

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- The familiar green four-leaf clover may look the same, but 4-H, both nationally and in Indiana, has come a long way from its roots as a club for farm kids.

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Like its signature emblem, 4-H's mission has remained virtually the same since the early 1900s: to develop youth as individuals and as responsible and productive citizens. How this is accomplished, however, has been in transition over the years. By necessity 4-H has undergone some subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle shifts to accommodate each passing generation and to adjust to the changing face of American youth.

4-H also is the subject of a multimillion dollar Advertising Council campaign promoting youth community service that debuted nationally the last week of October. The campaign features 4-H kids playing on a basketball court they have recently cleaned up, with the tag line "Are You Into It?" Kids who call the toll-free number will be contacted by local 4-H members who will help get them involved in community service projects. The National 4-H Council expects $27 million in donated media time and space alone.

Some 4-H professionals look to the campaign to help break down old stereotypes.

As Maurice Kramer, recently retired head of Purdue University's Department of 4-H/Youth, pointed out, "We're not in the business of raising prize livestock; we're in the business of raising prize youth."

In many instances, the experience of Indiana 4-H mirrors the country. In the late '80s, Indiana joined a national movement toward changing projects to teach life skills and work force preparation. Many of the changes first occurred in projects that were traditional strongholds, such as animal sciences and foods, which together account for more than one-third of all of Indiana's 4-H projects. The transition met with strong resistance both within and without the organization.

"Most of the animal projects focused on production at a time when the number of youths who would ever earn a living from production agriculture was shrinking," says Norm Long, Cooperative Extension Service specialist in 4-H. "Only about 16 percent of Indiana 4-H'ers live on a farm, and less than 5 percent will work in production agriculture."

Extension veterans -- many like Long, who at the time had more than 20 years' tenure in 4-H -- found themselves publicly supporting changes they privately questioned. But fair board members, 4-H leaders and parents felt no reservations about making their feelings known. "You're killing the program," "If it's not broken, don't fix it" and "It's too much like the classroom" were among the criticisms leveled.

A decade later, Long and others speak with obvious pride about the positive benefits of a new direction. "It (4-H) changed from skills-based to using the projects as a tool to teach decision-making, analytical skills and leadership," he says.

Kramer says: "4-H has expanded to include all youth. The 4-H tradition hasn't changed, but we're reaching a wider audience."

Reaching more youths has sometimes meant youths who grow up in at-risk environments and often suffer from low self-esteem and lack role identity, role models and self-control skills. 4-H has responded with programs that address such issues as teen pregnancy and parenting, AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, school dropout rates, juvenile delinquency, gangs, and racial conflicts. 4-H also is forging partnerships with other community youth-service and social agencies, schools, governments, and law enforcement agencies in an holistic approach to developing strategies for helping youths and families in at-risk situations.

Still, if you ask what image 4-H conjures up, the answer you'd more than likely receive would be that of a county fair. But the 4-H program that reaches the most youngsters today isn't at the fairgrounds -- it's in the classroom.

In 1996, more than 3 million U.S. schoolchildren -- nearly 153,000 in Indiana -- were involved in a 4-H-sponsored curriculum. In fact, a 4-H nutrition curriculum is one of only two programs approved by the Indiana Department of Education to teach nutrition in the state's public schools.

In the early 1990s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture introduced the Food Guide Pyramid, which revised the basic four food groups guidelines. Schools scrambled to find new materials to replace textbooks, which were immediately out-of-date. Purdue Extension specialists created Exploring the Food Pyramid, a health and nutrition curriculum for grades 1-9 that had proven effective in pilot testing.

"It has a lot of hands-on activities, and teachers don't have to have a nutrition background to teach it," says Alice Blume, Purdue Extension specialist in 4-H. "It offered schools a ready-made package complete with lesson plans, activity sheets and displays, and it provided in-service training and tech support for teachers -- all at a fraction of the cost of textbooks."

The success of Exploring the Food Pyramid has spread throughout the nation and even internationally. It has been adopted in all 50 states and is used in South America to prepare Peace Corps volunteers to teach nutrition.

All in all, more than a dozen different 4-H curricula are taught in classrooms. Some focus on national initiatives such as improving science and math skills in elementary students, while others teach lessons in citizenship.

In the near future, the most competitive part of 4-H may turn out to be for members and volunteer leaders. While school enrichment and special programs are growing, total enrollment in organized clubs struggles to maintain the status quo.

4-H clubs go head-to-head with every soccer and baseball league, scout troop and an ever-growing list of extracurricular activities and social groups that target youngsters at an earlier age. And competing for them also means competing for their parents.

"4-H gives families opportunities to work together," says Danita Rodibaugh, a Rensselaer, Ind., 4-H leader and mother of four third-generation 4-H'ers who has served 4-H and Extension in a variety of capacities and is on the board of the Indiana 4-H Foundation. "Some of our best experiences as a family have been at the State Fair, working in the livestock barns and sharing both the good times and the bad.

"Volunteering provides leaders an opportunity to become role models and help kids learn and achieve. It's a sign of the times that not all children have enough parental support. 4-H leaders can provide that support and help nurture those kids also."

Sources: Alice Blume, (765) 494-8430; e-mail,
Norm Long, (765) 494-8435; e-mail,
Danita Rodibaugh, (219) 866-3325
Writer: Olivia Maddox, (765) 496-3207; e-mail,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: Color photo available from Purdue News Service, (765) 494-2096. It shows 4-H'er Shannon Grimes of Columbus, Ind., with two little children during Pre-Schooler Day at the Bartholomew County Fair. The photo is called "Blume/4-Hkids."


4-H'er Shannon Grimes of Columbus, Ind., gives a guiding hand to A.J. Sherman (middle) and Alison Turner during Pre-Schooler Day at the Bartholomew County Fair. (Ag Communication Photo by Mike Kerper)

Color photo, electronic transmission, and Web and ftp download available. Photo ID: Blume/4-Hkids

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