LA GRANDE - The Oregon State University professor never had a class like this.

There they were. Scattered from La Grande to Corvallis. Intent. Asking tough questions.

They noticed that the prof's low-fat dairy products looked "thinner," more pale than the real stuff.

"So why does low-fat cost so much more?" one woman asked.

"Marketing," the professor answered quickly. "It costs money to advertise and promote a product. Sometimes there are extra processing costs, too."

The answer satisfied the woman for the moment. But the questions kept coming - from her "classmates" in Baker, Wallowa, Union, Malheur, Grant and Harney counties. OSU Extension specialists in Corvallis were also watching and listening.

But none of the classmates was in the same room as the professor. And the "classrooms" were in six different locations.

Welcome to distance education. In this case, a teleconference - an economical way to make the most out of teachers and to bring teachers and students together, no matter how many miles separate them.

The professor and other presenters were in a television studio at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande.

The audience totaled 120. But there were no more than 30 in each of the county extension centers where a "site coordinator" worked with the group as they interacted with their presenters via television.

Cheri Jo Carter, OSU extension home economist for eastern Oregon, organized this particular educational effort, called "Low fat...good or bad?" Carter had ulterior motives. The area she serves covers three counties. It's more than 200 miles from end to end.

"The distance of travel for any agents to do programs in the six eastern Oregon counties would be approximately 1,100 miles," she lamented. Travel budgets are tight. Time is limited, too. So if she can use distance education, she can travel less and still not have to teach the same lesson over and over.

Besides, she can take advantage of topnotch educators to help her spread her healthy-eating gospel. And the program can be broadcast almost anywhere and taped so people can see it at their convenience.

On this particular day, the audience started off a bit aloof, cool. "They would have liked Cheri Jo in person better than on a TV screen," said Beth Upshaw, program assistant, who served as site coordinator at the Union County Extension Center.

"But the (audience) warmed in a hurry, especially when they got into the question-and-answer part of the program and saw they could get a direct response," said Upshaw.

Anyway, the day's issue was a hot one. "Nutritionists estimate a third of American men and 36 percent of American women are overweight, because we don't get enough exercise and we eat too much fat," Carter said.

"But shopping for low-fat or no-fat foods can be confusing," she added. "We talked about how to read food labels for information on fat, calories, sodium and sugar."

To help tell the low-fat story, Carter had enlisted the help of Mary Kelsey, OSU associate professor of nutrition and food management, and Floyd Bodyfelt, OSU professor emeritus of food science and technology.

"This was an example of Extension working with on-campus departments to develop a program with sound, well-researched information," Carter said.

Kelsey's portion was taped ahead of time and dubbed into the program. She talked about fat replacers, like Oatrim, that replaces the fat in cookies and still gives them a chewy texture.

Bodyfelt, who gave a live presentation, concentrated on dairy products, and led the participants through taste tests. All participants, no matter where they were, had the same products. In fact, they had the same brands. Carter had seen to that. She wanted the food comparisons to be objective, fair.

After the program ended, Carter surveyed the participants.

"Some said they simply would not try fat replacers," she said. "But most said they would try them at least some of the time.

"Nearly all said they would try to cut back on fat. Most said they would read labels when shopping."

Carter reminded participants of the food pyramid. "On top are fats. They should be used sparingly," she said. "On the bottom are breads, cereals and pastas. Just above those are fruits and vegetables. You can eat a lot of those."

Carter reminded them of servings. "The pyramid calls for six to 11 servings a day of breads and cereals, four to five of vegetables and two to four of fruit," she said. "But don't make servings too big. For example, an apple is a serving. So is a half-cup of cooked veggies."

The OSU distance educators also reminded viewers of the calories versus fat issue.

"Just because it's low fat doesn't mean it's low cal," Carter said. "A lot of people gain weight because they stoke up on low-fat foods that are sweeter because they contain more sugar, for example."

The educators also told participants how to "wean" themselves to low-fat or no-fat foods.

For dairy products, Bodyfelt suggested they start by going from whole milk to 2 percent milk, then 1 percent, then a blend of 1 percent and no-fat milk, then just no-fat milk.

For meats, Carter suggested going from hamburger to ground beef that's 10 percent fat , then to 7 percent fat ground round.

"I used to have this obsession with mayonnaise, which is mostly fat," Carter said. "But I can't eat that much fat because I have a funny gall bladder and fat can trigger a gallstone attack. I found that I could eat - and like - low-fat mayo if I blended it with horseradish or maybe mustard."

As Carter, Kelsey and Bodyfelt spoke, there were nods or agreement all around, even though the educators couldn't see them.

A few participants squirmed when the educators reminded them that they should eat a variety of foods, and eat in moderation, and exercise.

The program, the first of its kind produced by an OSU extension agent, was supported by a $3,200 innovative grant from OSU Extension Service.

"It went well," Carter said. "I'm all fired up. I want to do some more programs - with a few changes - maybe next time on Oregon Public Broadcasting."

A star is born.

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Cheri Jo Carter, 541-963-1010