Nutrition Policy Institute researchers contribute to studies that inform policy changes
Marcela Gonzalez, who had wanted to be a physical therapist since she was a teenager, was in the final stage of realizing her dream.
But when she started in the PT program at the University of California San Francisco in 2021, a vexing struggle of her undergraduate years came back. Academic pressures and stomach troubles, compounded by financial worries, drained her of any energy and capacity to feed herself.
“I didn't eat; I lost a lot of weight because I just couldn't eat,” Gonzalez recalled. “I was too stressed out all the time; I was a mess.”
During her first year at UCSF, Gonzalez, for whom food has “always just been hard,” discovered that she qualified for CalFresh (California's version of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as “food stamps”). Her participation in the program – as well as the presence of a campus food pantry – helped lift a heavy mental burden and allowed her to refocus on school.
To understand the mechanisms that connect eligible students with CalFresh benefits, which could greatly improve their lives and education, University of California researchers interviewed UC campus staff responsible for guiding undergraduate and graduate students through the application process. Their recently published study, which involved researchers at UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' Nutrition Policy Institute, illuminated several major facilitators and barriers to CalFresh enrollment.
Campus-county coordination, boosting staffing key factors
Ensuring that college students have access to CalFresh is especially crucial, given that food insecurity affects that segment of the population roughly four times the rate of the general population, according to the study's principal investigator and co-author Suzanna Martinez, an associate professor in the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at UCSF.
It's estimated that more than 40% of college students face uncertain access to healthy food – and inflation, the rising cost of attending college and increasingly unaffordable housing are likely to swell those numbers.
That's why researchers say it's critical for campus staff who work on CalFresh outreach to collaborate with the financial aid office and the county office that administers the CalFresh program locally. Through close coordination, staff members can determine if students meet the necessary exemptions and help them with the paperwork.
“When that happens, it's much easier than when a student applies without their campus Basic Needs coordinator, or when they just go to the county and apply on their own,” Martinez explained. “Maybe they don't know all of the verification documents that have to be included, or they might not know their financial aid status.”
Erin Esaryk, NPI research data analyst and first author of the study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, also highlighted the need for increased campus staffing to help with CalFresh enrollment, as well as more outreach by campus and county staff to student populations about the benefits.
“When there's a lot of outreach, that helps alleviate some of the stigma, to normalize the receiving of CalFresh,” Esaryk said.
Helping others worry less about food
Given her own history of travails, Gonzalez, the physical therapy student, wanted to help others at UCSF “de-stress” about food. In summer and fall 2021, she served as a “CalFresh ambassador” for her cohort of new PT students, developing presentations and guides that break down how to apply for or renew CalFresh benefits.
She became the go-to person for her classmates' questions on the logistics and details of applying for the program, and also encouraged fellow health-professional students who, like herself, did not think they would qualify.
“To take out less loans, or to not worry about food a little bit every week, is a great thing,” said Gonzalez, pointing out that subtracting food costs allows students to shave down their loans.
After helping introduce her classmates to CalFresh, she transitioned to working at the food pantry at the Parnassus campus. In addition to setting up and distributing the items, Gonzalez also posts on Instagram and TikTok (@ucsf_basicneeds) to promote the “food market,” which attracts about 100 students and campus community members every Thursday afternoon.
“You never know what you're going to get, but there's so much really good, fresh produce,” she said.
Campus food pantries deliver health benefits
Researchers are also studying how campus food pantries affect students' overall health, including easing the challenges of anxiety, depression and sleep deprivation. Another recent study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior analyzed health-survey responses of 1,855 undergraduate and graduate students at all 10 UC campuses – before and after access to a campus food pantry.
“What we found was that students reported improvements in their perceived health and sufficient sleep,” said UCSF's Martinez, the lead author. “We also found that they reported fewer depressive symptoms, compared to before having access to the food pantry.”
By 2019, all UC campuses had established food pantries, although nationwide only about 25% of four-year colleges have one. The significant health benefits reported by UC students in this study give researchers hope that campus food pantries will see additional governmental support, in California and beyond.
“It was important to evaluate whether the food pantries were actually making a difference…if you don't have numbers or evidence, then you're not going to get funded to support future programming,” Martinez said.
Research guides state policy changes
Studies of food insecurity in the college setting have already informed policymaking aimed at smoothing the application process for CalFresh – benefits regarded by Martinez as a better long-term solution than food pantries, which constitute an emergency “short-term response” to the problem.
One example of the research's impact is a law passed last year in California that requires community colleges and California State University campuses to designate a campus-county liaison who would help students procure social services, including CalFresh. A separate law expanded the list of training programs within which students would potentially qualify for CalFresh, and another bill currently under consideration by the state Legislature would make the processing of students' CalFresh applications more consistent from county to county, through more standardized training of staff.
Meanwhile, on the research front, Esaryk, Martinez and their colleagues are completing a follow-up study on students and CalFresh enrollment, this time looking at the perspectives of county staff. And while their broader goal remains clarifying and streamlining student eligibility rules and processes at all levels, they remain focused on students and meeting their needs.
“Right now, our main mission is just to try to increase awareness of CalFresh for students and to let them know they may be eligible,” Martinez said, “and then assist them through that application process so they can actually get the benefits.”
In addition to Esaryk and Martinez, NPI director Lorrene Ritchie and Laurel Moffat of Washington State University are also authors of the CalFresh/SNAP benefits study, while co-authors of the college food pantry study are Ritchie, Gwen Chodur of UC Davis, Sevan Kaladijian of UC Irvine and Michael Grandner of the University of Arizona./h3>/h3>/h3>/h3>/h3>
- Author: Pamela Kan-Rice
“There is much we can learn from a friend who happens to be a horse.” — Aleksandra Layland
“Training mustangs is just so much fun,” said Aubrielle, as a chestnut-colored filly named Zuri nuzzled the 4-H member from Shasta County. Six months earlier, the young wild horse was wary of being touched. Now she was sporting accessories in her styled mane that matched the teenager's turquoise jewelry.
Over the past few years, UC Cooperative Extension in Modoc County has partnered with Modoc National Forest to provide public outreach and education to support the placement and care of wild horses from Devil's Garden at the northeastern corner of California. Adopting foals reduces overpopulation of wild horses, which can harm rangeland and the health of the mustangs themselves.
This year Laura Snell, UC Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources advisor in Modoc County, assigned weanling wild horses to 40 youth between the ages of 9 and 19 from all over the state. The mustangs were 4 to 6 months old in January when they were picked up in Alturas and taken home by California 4-H and FFA members, who feed and care for them.
“The moment when I got to touch him for the first time is probably one of the biggest parts of training as well as my progress with him,” said Morgan of Monterey County, who spent hours in the stall with Bowie trying to gain his trust.
“It was really amazing to me that I was able to touch him on day 5,” she said. “In the videos I watched leading up to getting him, most of the time it took one week to three weeks for the people in the videos to touch their wild mustangs. At that moment is when you really start to make that bond with a wild mustang.”
“The moment when I got to remove his tag was a huge part as well because at that moment you know that the mustang trusts you enough that he is letting you get that close to remove the tag,” Morgan said.
The young trainers teach the horses to wear a halter, to load and unload from a horse trailer and to navigate through obstacles. Some participants also work on tricks such as laying their horse down, walking the horse backward and walking under the horse. In June, the participants gathered in Alturas to show their progress.
“It provides them an opportunity to seek out adult mentors who are horse trainers, learn responsibility, and learn a variety of things about caring for a wild horse and learning more about themselves in the process,” said Snell.
“We find that the youth do very well with wild horses. It's really a two-way street, with the horses learning just as much as the youth are in the six months they are in training,” she added.
Sisters Kailey and Maddi in San Benito County both adopted weanling horses. Removing the tag after about three weeks was a turning point for Maddi and her horse Fiona.
“The significance of getting the tag off was we hadn't been able to get near her at all,” said Maddi. “She had some aggression toward people out of fear. So getting past that, getting to the point where she trusted me and I could get that halter on her and get close enough to get that tag off was just a huge achievement. After that, once she trusted me, she started doing really, really well and flying through her training.”
Because wildfires are part of life in California, she taught Fiona to step over flames so she won't be afraid if they need to evacuate, Maddi told KSBW reporter Brisa Colon.
“It has been amazing to be able to share this experience with another very close family,” said Aubrielle's mother Ashley Phipps. “Our daughters have gone through the entire journey together starting with visiting the corrals to pick horses together, all the way through the training process. My daughter is older than Brooklin and has been a great mentor to her, teaching Brooklin and her horse along the way. It has been such a confidence builder for my daughter! Our girls will never forget this experience!!! And I loved every moment of watching them grow through the ups and downs. This program is such a blessing.”
To qualify for the program, applicants must fill out an application which includes being enrolled in a horse program such as the 4-H Equine Project, show they have facilities and feed for the animals, designate a mentor and have their parents' approval.
The trainers and their horses competed in the Devil's Garden Colt Challenge on June 18 in Alturas, vying for awards in halter, showmanship and obstacle course with youth from 13 counties participating. Prizes totaled over $3,000.
Master Gardener volunteers partner with County of San Diego on new demonstration garden
In a garden with roughly the square footage of a two-car garage, the University of California Master Gardeners and County of San Diego staff have packed a whole lot of learning for the community.
The demonstration garden, which had its grand opening last fall, is now flourishing in its 20-by-20-foot space in a plaza at the heart of the San Diego County Operations Center. Skilled volunteers with San Diego's UC Master Gardeners, a program of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, maintain its containers of vegetables and herbs, succulents, and native and pollinator plants.
“For such a little garden, there's a lot to look at,” said Karen Morse, a Master Gardener volunteer who helped establish the “demo garden” – a highly visible and accessible teaching tool for the many people who work and conduct business in the surrounding offices.
“We get questions from people just walking by – from the public, from county employees – all the time,” said Leah Taylor, UC Master Gardener program coordinator in San Diego County. “While we're doing what we're doing in the garden, we're a presence for people to just get a quick bite of education.”
The garden also features a “Little Free Library” of gardening books, as well as a compost bin and rain barrel for demonstration purposes. There are also signs (in English and Spanish, as well as additional languages on the garden's website) offering tips on composting/worm composting, pest management, water conservation, climate adaptation, sustainability practices, and health and nutrition. The expertise of a host of county departments and agencies inform the resources.
“The most beautiful thing about that garden is not necessarily the plants – although we love our plants – it's that it showcases almost every county department…all represented in one place and you can find how to connect with those groups, all in one place,” Taylor explained.
During planning for a broader revamp of the Operations Center grounds, the county had approached the Master Gardeners to provide guidance on a public demo garden.
“The County has a long-standing commitment to sustainability and partnership with the University of California Cooperative Extension,” said Rebeca Appel, program manager for the county's Land Use and Environment Group, which spearheaded the effort through the “Live Well San Diego” Food System Initiative. “So it was a natural approach to work with the Master Gardeners with their robust community garden program, and educational outreach in home and urban gardening throughout our region.”
The vision for the garden was shaped by county teams working with Joan Martin and Ellen Cadwallader, co-chairs of the Master Gardener committee that oversees the program's demonstration gardens across San Diego County, including those at Balboa Park and The Flower Fields in Carlsbad.
And while those gardens help raise awareness among the many visitors at those sites, Martin said the newest demo garden provides unique opportunities for ongoing community education, such as lunch-and-learns on specific gardening topics.
“This is the garden where there's really a chance for year-round education and sessions,” Martin said. “We're excited to see it get started and watch it grow.”
Morse and fellow Master Gardener Sandy Main collaborated with Appel to bring those early plans and objectives to verdant life.
“I think we ticked all the boxes of everything they wanted, initially – examples of container gardening, natives, vegetables, herbs, pollinators – and wheelchair accessible,” Morse said.
They have since passed the botanical baton to Skye Resendes, a relatively recent graduate of the Master Gardener certification program. She will coordinate a team of a dozen volunteers in the ongoing upkeep of the County Operations Center demo garden.
Resendes, who uses gardening to help her cope with the stresses of her work as a civil litigator, said she hopes the garden will not only inform the community on crucial ecological and conservation topics but also inspire more people to start their own gardens.
“The science is out there – there are huge mental health benefits to gardening,” Resendes said. “It's an absolute meditation.”/h3>
Commitment of $690,000 supports UC South Coast Research and Extension Center, 4-H programs
During a “GROW Field Day” when 100 high school students enjoyed harvesting and tasting avocados, the Orange County Farm Bureau announced a $690,000 gift to expand University of California-affiliated programs that introduce young people to agricultural careers.
The students from four schools across Southern California participated in the GROW program on May 13 at the UC South Coast Research and Extension Center in Irvine, a UC Agriculture and Natural Resources facility that organizes and hosts these educational programs.
“Part of the mission of Orange County Farm Bureau is to support the development of the next generation of agriculturalists,” said Casey Anderson, executive director of OCFB, in announcing the five-year commitment that will begin in 2023. “Through our partnership with South Coast Research Extension Center and support of Orange County 4-H, we are thrilled to provide opportunities to young people to directly connect with food production and myriad research and career opportunities in agriculture.”
Hundreds of local youth are served every year by Orange County 4-H, a part of a nationwide youth development and education program, administered in California by UC ANR.
“OCFB contributions to our Forever 4-H Endowment will soon provide sustaining funds every year, indefinitely,” said Rita Jakel, Orange County 4-H program coordinator. “And their commitment to our Program Support Fund will help ensure that 4-H will continue to have the capacity to impact the youth of Orange County.”
GROW program introduces youth to agriculture careers
The GROW program, originally conceived by OCFB as a way to make agricultural experiences more accessible to more young people across the region, has engaged over 1,000 students from nine schools – many of them in urban areas where knowledge of agriculture is limited. The program builds on a strong history of collaboration between OCFB and South Coast REC, dating back to the early 2000s.
“UC ANR and South Coast Research and Extension Center are grateful for the trust the Orange County Farm Bureau continues to place in us to not only deliver agricultural education to the people of Orange County, but also to open the eyes of young people to fulfilling careers in agriculture,” said Darren Haver, director of UC South Coast REC.
“To me, it's like a great big outdoor classroom,” said Tammy Majcherek, a South Coast REC community educator specialist who coordinates the GROW program, along with colleague Jason Suppes. “There are so many possibilities of what we can connect to.”
Programs spotlight diversity of agriculture-related fields
Gina Cunningham, a teacher at Westminster High School (part of the Huntington Beach Unified School District), was excited to bring the 20 freshmen in her agricultural biology class to the GROW Day, where they get a glimpse of potential pathways in agriculture that “are not directly farming-related.”
“This gives kids an opportunity to see some things that are available to them that maybe they never have thought of – and there are a lot of things out there that I might not have thought of, either,” said Cunningham, who has degrees in animal science and agricultural education.
Thanks to OCFB's long-term commitment to the program, GROW coordinators Majcherek and Suppes said that in the coming years they would like to bring more students with career aspirations outside of traditional agricultural roles. In particular, they hope to reach out to young people with interests in culinary arts and food service, as well as in technology and engineering, which intersect with food production in the form of drones, robotics and artificial intelligence.
Regardless of their background, however, almost all of the students love harvesting crops from the South Coast REC farm, whether pumpkins, potatoes, or – during the most recent GROW Day – avocados. Majcherek said it's especially rewarding to hear the students talk enthusiastically about older siblings who went to a GROW program and came back with enduring memories – as well as some fresh produce.
“You know it's cool when they're taking selfies with their bounty,” she said.
Community members interested in joining the Orange County Farm Bureau in support of South Coast REC and 4-H programs are encouraged to make a donation on UC ANR's annual Giving Day, which runs from noon to noon on May 19-20./h3>/h3>/h3>
- Author: Madison Sankovitz
When stay-at-home orders went into place in March 2020, many of us took up newfound pastimes and reprioritized the tasks that filled our days. It wasn't all about baking sourdough bread and fulfilling TikTok challenges - the pandemic also ushered in a new wave of novice gardeners looking for help and advice on how to delve into home horticulture.
The perfect group to aid in this mission was the UC Master Gardeners, a program that has focused on sharing research-based information about gardening and pest management with the public since 1980. At the start of the pandemic, Master Gardeners were suddenly bombarded with a higher volume of calls and emails seeking gardening advice. This public service and outreach program under the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (UCANR) is usually administered in person by participating UC Cooperative Extension county offices, but COVID forced Master Gardeners to rethink their strategy for disseminating critical horticulture resources. Volunteers across the state showed continued to extend information by using new digital platforms and technology, efforts that have helped the program stay connected to California communities.
Gardening resources in Spanish
One significant digital resource developed by Master Gardeners during the pandemic has been the addition of gardening videos in Spanish. The majority of resources offered through the program are only in English. But according to the 2019 census data, the most common non-English language spoken in California is Spanish; 28.8% of the overall population are native Spanish speakers. An internal UC ANR grant to develop online educational resource materials in other languages proved to be the perfect opportunity to expand gardening resources for Spanish speakers.
With a spirit of collaboration, Master Gardener volunteers, local community organizations and partners, and UC News and Outreach in Spanish staff created and released a series of food gardening videos in Spanish. In addition, they are working on translating the entire California Master Gardener Handbook (the chapter dedicated to food gardening is already completed).
Visit the statewide UC Master Gardener YouTube channel at youtube.com/c/UCMasterGardenerProgram to access the playlist of videos in Spanish. These videos are available for sharing on social media, websites, or anywhere the program reaches the gardening public.
The Spanish translation project has provided aid to countless community members looking to start gardens during the pandemic, but hope and resilience during COVID-19 are arguably even better exemplified through individual volunteers who have spearheaded digital initiatives through the Master Gardener Program. Some volunteers stand out as digital superstars.
Allen Buchinski joined the program in 2003 with a love of gardening and its sense of community. Buchinski has played an instrumental role in developing and maintaining the UC Master Gardener Program of Santa Clara County's website (mgsantaclara.ucanr.edu). He aided in bringing the program's help desk online, and he also coded an online storefront for selling seedlings and scheduling pick-ups.
“The help desk has been especially interesting during the past year because of the pandemic,” says Buchinski. “We needed to adjust our processes to work from home as well as deal with a 50% increase in the number of questions. We answered more than 2,100 questions from March 2020 to February 2021!”
While Buchinski's expertise focuses on web development, digital communication also relies on social media. Social media expert Michele Willer-Allred joined the UC Master Gardener Program of Ventura County in 2020 and became co-chair of the communications committee shortly after.
“Social media has been a great tool, especially with promoting our virtual workshops and interacting with other Master Gardeners throughout the country. But there is so much more we want to do,” explains Willer-Allred. “We plan to start an email newsletter; create educational gardening videos and virtual tours of local gardens; profile more of our amazing garden volunteers; and go outside our county and visit with other UC Master Gardener Programs. We also hope to increase our reach to a broader, more ethnically diverse audience, as well as younger gardeners in our community, since they are indeed our future!"
Long-time volunteer Rita Evans has been an active UC Master Gardener volunteer in Fresno County since 1993. When the pandemic hit, the county office closed, and most volunteer activities ceased. Evans immediately came up with a plan for how volunteers could stay connected and continue to earn hours.
“When the pandemic hit, our online refresher course was born. It is a 16-session 'refresher' using the UC Master Gardener Handbook with our own UC Master Gardener volunteers being the featured speakers,” explains Evans. “It is providing a path for volunteers to earn their required hours, to socialize virtually with a study buddy, and to refresh their horticulture knowledge ... it's a win-win.”
Buchinski, Willer-Allred and Evans are a few digital superstars shining among many volunteers who have given countless hours toward increasing access to gardening resources for communities across the state. Their efforts, in addition to the Spanish translation team, are true stories of hope and resilience during this pandemic and represent the beginning of a new era of increased access to resources./h2>/h2>