Nutrition Policy Institute researcher influenced obesity research, SNAP-Ed evaluation
Young people across California and the U.S. enjoy healthier, more nutritious food options at school, thanks to the contributions of Gail Woodward-Lopez, who retired on July 1 as the associate director of research at the Nutrition Policy Institute, a part of University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Woodward-Lopez officially joined UC ANR in 2015, when she and other researchers at the Atkins Center for Weight and Health at UC Berkeley merged with NPI. But her association with UC ANR goes back much further, as her work at CWH was always directed by UC Cooperative Extension academics – including the research that paved the way for California's “junk food ban” in schools.
Two bills, signed in 2005, set nutrition standards in California for “competitive foods”– the items sold in vending machines and from food service a la carte (as opposed to federally subsidized school meals). That legislation – which inspired similar policy changes across the country – was informed by the work of Woodward-Lopez and her colleagues, who had looked at the financial impact of establishing those standards.
“Our study was so pivotal that I literally had people calling me from the floor of the Senate or the Assembly when they were debating that legislation,” recalled Woodward-Lopez.
Changing perceptions of population weight gain
Originally intending to pursue a career in neurobiology, Woodward-Lopez found that lab work didn't suit her temperament. Seeking to work more directly on social issues, she embarked on a public health path, with an emphasis on nutritional aspects that incorporated her interest in biological sciences.
Woodward-Lopez's early work focused on a challenge that was just beginning to catch the attention of researchers: the rapid rise in the Body Mass Index (BMI) among the U.S. population. In tracing the causes of this epidemic, she and her colleagues shifted academic and public attention toward the host of environmental factors that contribute to weight gain – instead of focusing exclusively on an individual's choice to eat healthy and be physically active.
“Two decades ago, Gail led groundbreaking work to identify the determinants of obesity when child obesity was emerging as a public health concern,” said Nutrition Policy Institute Director Lorrene Ritchie. “While we and other researchers across the nation were working on generating more evidence to inform action, she had the vision that we could use a variety of existing data – from trends to trials – to point to the main causes.”
Many of the researchers' conclusions, which were published in the 2006 book “Obesity: Dietary and Developmental Influences,” stand to this day.
Helping to set the identity and agenda of the Center for Weight and Health when it was founded in 2000, Woodward-Lopez moved policy and practice beyond educational approaches and public awareness campaigns. As she noted: “No one thinks sugar-sweetened beverages are good for you.”
“Education alone is not going to work if people do not have access to the healthy foods and opportunities for physical activity, if they're not safe in their neighborhoods, or if they can't afford the healthy options,” she explained.
Given her seminal role in the field, Kaiser Permanente sought out Woodward-Lopez as a “thought partner” on the organization's community-based obesity prevention programs and school health work.
“Gail brought deep rigor and expertise, of course, but also a super-practical, community-focused perspective to our work,” said Loel Solomon, professor of health systems science at the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine. “Her integrity and values around health equity were evident in everything we did together, and our communities are so much the better for it.”
Elevating and enhancing CalFresh Healthy Living
At the Nutrition Policy Institute, the focus of Woodward-Lopez's work has been refining the evaluation and delivery of SNAP-Ed, the educational component of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly referred to as “food stamps”). Known in California as CalFresh Healthy Living, SNAP-Ed represents the largest single source of ongoing funding for nutrition and physical activity promotion in the state – outside of the WIC program which serves women, infants and young children.
“CalFresh Healthy Living can really impact millions of people,” Woodward-Lopez said. “For county health departments, this is one of their main sources of funding and provides the backbone for everything else they do in nutrition and physical activity.”
But given the variety of interventions implemented by health departments in response to local needs, determining the efficacy of those efforts is a daunting task. Woodward-Lopez and her NPI colleagues have been instrumental in devising creative approaches that help pinpoint the most effective public health measures.
For example, NPI researchers found that combining school policy changes with increased opportunities for physical activity during the school day was the best strategy to encourage student fitness. They discovered that reductions in nutrition programs during the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affected communities of color. And they also continue to emphasize that interventions need to be tailored to the specific cultural and political conditions within a community.
“I think in all of the work we do, we try to come up with those practical applications – what does this mean for communities? How can we do this differently? How are our findings actionable?” Woodward-Lopez said.
Her contributions toward the evaluation of California Department of Public Health SNAP-Ed have impressed and inspired Lauren Whetstone, chief of CDPH's Research, Evaluation and Strategic Alignment Section, Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Branch.
“Gail and her team have elevated the quality of our evaluation work and the evaluation support that we provide to local health department grantees,” said Whetstone, who has worked with Woodward-Lopez for nearly a decade. “Gail contributed substantially to statewide SNAP-Ed evaluation as well, again working collaboratively to ensure high quality evaluation. Our work is all the stronger due to Gail's dedication to excellent SNAP-Ed evaluation.”
To the benefit of the field and community health, Woodward-Lopez said she plans to remain engaged in her life's work.
“I'd really like to get more involved in policy through advocacy and through doing things like writing letters to the editor or social media commentary,” she said. “I already have some ideas for some editorials I want to write.”
And while she looks forward to spending more time with loved ones, traveling, and pursuing her interests in art and music, Woodward-Lopez will remain a guiding voice for advancing public health.
“Gail's leadership in public health nutrition – even after she retires – is a testament to her dedication,” Ritchie said. “She not only has contributed to sustainable changes in California and nationally, she has been a mentor to me and so many others in the field who will strive to continue her legacy.”
People interested in supporting Woodward-Lopez's legacy and the ongoing work in health and nutrition can donate to NPI's Student Fellowship, which provides students from underrepresented groups the opportunity to work on NPI research and be mentored by NPI researchers.