Dental students at the State Fair

Fried food, rides and a crash course in oral health
October 11th, 2018
Candied apples. Photo: Kevin Brown/State Fair of Texas

Photo: Kevin Brown/State Fair of Texas

Even dental students find free candy irresistible at a flavor showcase like the State Fair of Texas, admits D3 Sydney Jones, who volunteered with two classmates on behalf of Texas A&M College of Dentistry in the fair’s Go Texan Pavilion on Sept. 29.

“I asked for some toffee when I was wearing my white coat, so I told them not to tell anybody. They joked that they already had us on video,” Jones says with a laugh.

The fair is an ideal setting for the dental school’s collaboration with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service’s nutrition booth. Ironically, the 2.25 million visitors who enter the fair’s gates each year are often lured in with staples like caramel apples, corn dogs and cotton candy alongside inventive creations such as bacon brittle, sweet crispy rice and just about anything that can be battered and browned in a vat of sizzling oil.

“When I think of the State Fair I think of fried food and rides,” Jones says. “I didn’t really think of it as an educational opportunity. It was cool to have healthy options and see people interested. It was so fun talking to people in the community and getting the school’s name out there to those who weren’t aware of it.”

State Fair of Texas

L to R: D3s Jennifer Aleman, Ryan Buda, Ellen Nauert, and Dr. Sarah Allen. Photo: Ellen Nauert.

Faculty member Dr. Christine Beninger, clinical associate professor in restorative sciences, dreamed up this outreach opportunity in 2016 and set out to make it happen: making calls to find the right Texas A&M system contact, working with staff members in multiple departments on promotional materials and logistics, and securing enough student and faculty volunteers for the fair’s three-week run.

“I was determined to see if we could have a presence at the State Fair so that our students could be ambassadors for our school and provide information on oral health to fairgoers as a public service,” Beninger says. “In the process, if people learned that their dental needs could be addressed at a lower cost at the dental college, maybe we would increase the size of our patient pool.

“An amazing 88 percent of the D3 class volunteered to staff the booth, and faculty from many college departments did the same. I am very thankful for the extension service’s generosity and our dean’s support, and so proud of how we all worked together to make this effort succeed.”

Larry Pierce, regional program leader with AgriLife Extension, explains that when he received Beninger’s call, the agency already had established a theme for this year’s booth linking agriculture to food and health.

“When we started to think about how we could incorporate oral health with agriculture and food — the way foods connect total and oral health — it tied in very nicely,” he says. The agency even created an informational banner on nutrition and dental health to help educate fairgoers.

D3 Brendan Daugherty visits with fairgoers on Sept. 28.

D3 Brendan Daugherty visits with fairgoers on Sept. 28.

Another plus: AgriLife Extension relies on volunteers from its 4H program, master gardeners and master naturalists to staff its State Fair booth, which makes Texas A&M dental students a welcome addition. Exposing dental students to this environment offers the chance to increase their awareness of how agriculture and health connect, Pierce says.

The flow of information goes both ways.

“You know, I don’t think about the food I eat affecting my oral health; I think this makes people think on a different level, specifically about dental health, which is neat,” Pierce says. “We are always searching for ways to promote health.”

Beninger, who volunteered on the fair’s opening day, observed the D3 students in action.

“They were professional while at the same time engaging, informative and, in short, delightful,” she says.

“This is a good chance for students to connect with people in a fun atmosphere rather than in the usual clinical dental setting where most people are at least a little uncomfortable. The fairgoers appreciated the information they were given; it wasn’t just about the free toothbrushes!”

— Carolyn Cox