Tehama County students empowered by CalFresh Healthy Living, UCCE educator and teachers
It's not uncommon for high school or college students to speak up and seek to improve their school environment. But at Evergreen Middle School in Tehama County, more than 100 sixth graders led the way to create healthy changes at their school.
As part of their health classes during the 2022-23 school year, the students researched the availability of spaces for physical activity, developed a survey gauging their peers' health awareness and needs, analyzed the results and data, and made recommendations for improvements.
“We learned that there's not a lot of places – except for Evergreen Middle School and some other parks around [our community of] Cottonwood – that have many physical activity places that you can easily get to or have access to,” said Bailey, one of the students.
They were guided by Mario Monroy-Olivas, a nutrition educator with CalFresh Healthy Living, University of California Cooperative Extension in Tehama, Shasta and Trinity counties. Locally administered by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, CFHL, UCCE is one of the agencies in California that teaches nutrition to people eligible for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) – referred to as CalFresh Food in California.
Working alongside Evergreen teachers Roxanne Akers and Albert Estrada, Monroy-Olivas challenged the sixth graders to tackle a “Youth Participatory Action Research” project – a yearlong, multi-step undertaking typically designed for older teens.
“The fact that we're doing it with these younger kids, starting a lot sooner, I think it's super impactful for them to know that, together, collectively they can make huge changes that will create positive outcomes – not just for themselves but for an entire community,” Monroy-Olivas said.
Middle school students speak up at school board meeting
In February 2023, eight class representatives presented their findings to the Evergreen Union School District Board of Education. Speaking before the five-member board for 20 minutes, the young people were naturally a bit nervous.
“It was a little nerve-wracking at first, but it wasn't that bad, once we got up there and got it over with,” said Lilah, one of the presenters. “Me and a couple of my friends were doing pep talks and practicing what we were going to say.”
The students showed a composite map that they drew from their classes' investigation of spaces for physical activity in the area, and shared a brochure that outlined their research and survey results. In a survey of more than 80 of their peers, 92% of respondents said they needed more access to physical activity equipment during class breaks, recess and lunch.
“The board members were super impressed with the students, coming to the school board and doing this,” Monroy-Olivas said. “They said they haven't had students doing this kind of advocacy work; for them, it was a really big deal.”
In the end, the young people made a strong case for more water-bottle refilling stations, badminton equipment and balls for other sports, and stencils for schoolyard activities like hopscotch, four square and snail (a type of hopscotch game).
“We got almost everything we asked for, and the project we're working on now is to help put in the things we asked for,” said Lilah, adding that, during this current school year, the students (now in seventh grade) are working on acquiring the stencils and paint.
More than just equipment, students gain skills and confidence
While the promise of new gear is exciting for the youth, they are acquiring something even more valuable and enduring – a sense that they are empowered to make a difference in their community, according to Janessa Hartmann, UC Cooperative Extension community nutrition and health advisor for Tehama, Shasta and Trinity counties.
“Yes, it's important to want to do stencils and hydration stations and have more equipment,” Hartmann said, “but the bigger impact for the students is that they think: ‘Now I know that my health is important, now I know how to advocate for myself, and now I know that I can do that.'”
Monroy-Olivas said he observed tremendous growth in all the students, and especially in the self-confidence of the class representatives.
“I grew as a leader because I used to be really shy and hated talking in front of people, but through this project we're doing, this has really helped me be able to talk in front of crowds – and listen to others,” Lilah explained.
In a survey at the end of the sixth-grade project, the percentage of youth who answered “Yes, most definitely” to the statement “I want to make a difference in making my school/community healthier” jumped from 19% before the project to 44% after. And that percentage of “Yes, most definitely” replies jumped from 6% to 31% for the statement “I can use research results to come up with solutions or recommendations for making my school/community a healthier place.”
“We learned to promote what we want and try to get it as much as we can, so we can get more physical activities and more people can be included,” said Brian, another student working on the project.
“It's important so when we get older, we know how to voice our opinions and let people know what we're thinking,” added classmate Brooklynn.
Wishing that he had such an opportunity when he was growing up, Monroy-Olivas said he feels the students now know the power of their voice.
“I wholeheartedly believe that's the biggest win out of this whole project, that they're learning how to advocate for their own voice and change,” he said./h3>/h3>/h3>
New law mandates at least 30 minutes of recess for K-8 public school students
Last year, while working on a bill that would require California public schools to provide at least 30 minutes of recess, State Sen. Josh Newman sought the latest research on youth physical activity. Newman, whose district encompasses parts of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties, traveled to the Bay Area to see one of the leading experts in the field.
During several visits with Newman, Hannah Thompson – a Nutrition Policy Institute senior epidemiologist and an assistant research professor in the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health – shared the most recent science.
Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that children have 20 minutes or more of daily recess. But, when asked about the current “state of recess” across California, Thompson said she only knew of anecdotal evidence at the state level.
“I said, ‘You know what? I don't actually know what is going on in California,'” Thompson recalled. “I contacted a couple of colleagues who had done more national-level work on recess that included samples of California schools – but no one was really able to disaggregate what was happening in California.”
She brought up the bill during a meeting with her fellow researchers at NPI, an institute under UC Agriculture and Natural Resources.
And it turned out that Janice Kao, an NPI academic coordinator, had exactly what she needed.
CalFresh Healthy Living evaluation team provides key recess data
Kao leads a project team that evaluates local health departments' programs of CalFresh Healthy Living – California's version of the educational arm of SNAP (the federally supported Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).
As part of that evaluation process, Kao's team coordinates questionnaire administration at SNAP-Ed-eligible schools that are partnering with local health departments on CalFresh Healthy Living interventions, ranging from nutrition programs to physical activity initiatives. The survey asks school administrators about their current policies, environments and practices – including the provisioning of recess.
“It was just really good luck that everything was in the right place at the right time to be able to work together,” Thompson said.
At Thompson's request, Kao and her colleagues processed and cleaned that crucial piece of data, comprising responses from 153 low-income elementary schools in the 2021-22 school year.
“Just 56% of schools reported providing more than 20 minutes of recess daily,” Kao said. “So this was a situation where the data showed, ‘OK, there is some room for improvement, perhaps at that state policy level.'”
Thompson and Rebecca London, a sociologist at UC Santa Cruz, wrote a research brief detailing their analysis of the data. They describe disparities in recess time based on school size and income level of families, with students in larger, less affluent schools generally receiving less daily recess.
Thompson said those disparities are related to funding and academic inequities, as the imperative to boost test scores forced schools to increase certain classroom hours at the expense of recess time.
“We did all this work engineering physical activity out of the school day despite the tremendous body of evidence that shows physically active kids not only are healthier but can concentrate better; they have better academic performance, fewer disruptions, better classroom behavior,” explained Thompson, a former physical education teacher in Oakland. “In trying to address that academic gap, we ended up exacerbating a lot of these public health disparities.”
Virtual learning during the pandemic showed educators and parents – firsthand – the harmful effects of children staying sedentary in front of computer screens for hours. But the resulting momentum for restoring recess and time for physical activity was soon stalled as schools tried to make up for “lost time” in returning to classrooms, Thompson said.
NPI resources, expertise invaluable to lawmakers
Newman's bill, SB 291, was an attempt to lock in those recess minutes that are crucial for student health, development and scholastic performance. Both Thompson and London testified before the Senate Education Committee in April 2023, providing the senators with science-based information and context to guide their policymaking.
“Crafting policies rooted in science is critical for legislators to ensure our policies are impactful,” Newman said. “The work of Dr. Thompson and her colleagues at UC provided clear and useful guidance on the benefits of unstructured play and how to improve health and educational outcomes in California schools.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed SB 291 into law last October. Starting this coming school year, public elementary and middle schools across California will be required to give at least 30 minutes of recess to K-5 students – and prohibited from withholding recess as punishment.
Kao said her team was excited that their CalFresh Healthy Living evaluation data was useful for lawmakers, illustrating NPI's important role in informing evidence-based policy.
“I'm hopeful that we can use this same data set to also provide key pieces of information on other types of legislation that's in the works, or newly passed legislation,” Kao said.
Thompson said the challenge now will be ensuring schools have the resources and funding to provide quality time for young people.
“If you only have one schoolyard, and it's already dedicated to PE, what do you do now, if you have to increase your time for recess and you don't have that space?” she said.
Thompson added that she is currently applying for a grant to study how schools across California are adjusting to meet the new requirements./h3>/h3>/h3>
4-H leaders, youth complete state's first MyPI instructor certification workshop in Tehama County
Disasters do not discriminate. They can impact people regardless of their race, color, creed, socioeconomic status – or age. That's why a nationwide effort to train young people in emergency preparedness continues to grow and is establishing itself in California.
The national MyPI (Preparedness Initiative) program, developed by Mississippi State University Extension, partnered with California 4-H this fall to train the state's first cohort of instructors, who will then lead trainings for young people in the coming months. With Northern California as the catalyst, organizers plan to spread the program across the state, said Nate Caeton, 4-H youth development advisor for Shasta, Tehama and Trinity counties.
“If you look at the research, everybody is affected by disasters, but young people even more so, for a number of reasons – whether because they don't fully understand what's going on, or they don't have the same experience or skill sets as adults,” said Caeton, who serves as the MyPI California manager. “But this takes a huge leap in addressing that.”
California is the 28th state/territory-level program to partner with the national MyPI team to train instructors – but the first to allow young people to participate in the three-day instructor workshop.
Of the 11 4-H-affiliated participants who completed the October training in Red Bluff, five were teenagers. The workshop, led by national MyPI trainers, included comprehensive Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) content developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, known as FEMA – covering medical operations, fire safety, light search and rescue, disaster psychology and more.
“By the end of day 1, the trainers were already commenting on the maturity level of the teens who had attended,” Caeton said. “They've been doing this training for a long time and they were definitely impressed – that says a lot about our young people.”
Potential disasters necessitate preparation by all
Bodie, a ninth grader in Shasta County, said the MyPI California workshop gave him a new perspective on his father's role and responsibilities as a CAL FIRE battalion chief.
“It was a great class, a great experience,” said Bodie, who participated in the training with his two brothers. “It was a 30-hour-long class – really long, but really fun; there was a lot of hands-on learning.”
Katy Zulliger, Bodie's mother, also attained instructor certification through the workshop. She said that, in their city of Redding and communities across the region, there remains considerable trauma from the devastating fires of 2018 – the Carr Fire and Camp Fire. Zulliger said that educating and preparing the public – including youth – will be crucial in meeting future challenges.
“There's a lot that can happen around here – from earthquakes to fire to flood to mudslides, and the list goes on and on…even, living on I-5, potentially tanker trucks spilling over,” she explained. “It's smart for the kids to learn how to think outside the box.”
Bodie noted that the workshop has made him more aware of his surroundings and potential contingency plans.
“When I'm out in the town, I really do think about what can happen in different scenarios – for example, maybe an earthquake or active shooter situation – and I ask myself, ‘What would I do? How would I respond?'” said Bodie, who is considering a career as a first responder.
Youth have a voice, role in boosting community resilience
The skills and knowledge gained from the MyPI program can equip young people to be leaders among their peers, and even in the broader community, when emergencies arise.
“Kids can actually use this and be engaged – instead of just being a watcher or video taker,” said Zulliger, a 4-H volunteer who has served as a club leader of the Palo Cedro 4-H club. “They have a voice and they can use it positively.”
Her sons – and the other two teens who completed the workshop – will help adult instructors organize and deliver the 10- to 12-week MyPI training to young people in their communities. As part of the program, tentatively slated to begin in Northern California by summer 2024, youth participants will be required to work with their families to create an emergency communications plan, assemble a disaster kit, and reach out to six other households to make similar preparations.
“This gives them some ownership over their own personal preparedness and the preparedness of their family and those they are closest to,” Caeton explained.
By partnering with schools, 4-H clubs and community groups, Caeton said the goal is to deliver the program to 125 young people, across five Northern California counties, by summer 2025 – before expanding participation across the state.
“I'm hoping it spreads like wildflowers, because it's definitely needed,” Zulliger said./h3>/h3>/h3>
Nutrition Policy Institute researcher developed techniques that help identify effective public health programs
When Suzanne Rauzon and May Wang were in the master's of public health program at the University of California, Berkeley during the mid-1980s, Wang knew that her classmate had unique brilliance to bring to their field.
“You know how you vote for the person in high school who's most likely to succeed? That was Suzanne,” said May Wang, a professor of community health sciences in the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. “Suzanne was always ahead of every one of us; she was so visionary and forward-thinking and I think we were all – to be honest – a little bit in awe of her.”
Decades later, as Rauzon prepares to retire in January 2024 as director of community health at the Nutrition Policy Institute, she has fulfilled that exceptional promise. Her many contributions are helping communities identify the most effective programs to benefit public health.
Lorrene Ritchie, director of NPI (an institute under UC Agriculture and Natural Resources), said that Rauzon has played a pivotal role in translating research findings into community action and policy change. She added that Rauzon has brought an extraordinary combination of strategic vision for the overall direction of nutrition studies and tactical savvy to anticipate the needs of project funders and communities.
“Few people can bring both of those skills – efficiently complete the day-to-day tasks as well as be a big-picture thinker,” Ritchie said. “She has been so instrumental in contributing to NPI's impacts.”
A unique skill set to tackle complex challenges
Part of what makes Rauzon unique in her field is her extensive experience in the private sector. After attaining her master's degree, Rauzon developed a comprehensive employee worksite wellness initiative at a telecommunications company – a new set of programs that led the field in the 1990s.
“Suzanne was, is and has always been very visionary,” Wang said.
After years in the corporate space, however, Rauzon leaped at the chance to return to academia (and reunite with Wang) in 2001 at UC Berkeley's Center for Weight and Health, a precursor to NPI. Working with center co-director Patricia Crawford, Rauzon said the project to investigate the effects of sugar-sweetened beverages was a “perfect fit” for her.
Concerned with rising childhood obesity, the researchers studied the significant differences in health outcomes for students in high schools that limited access to beverages such as soft drinks, versus schools that did not.
“That field in general – looking to limit sugar-sweetened beverages – started with a focus in schools, and expanded into other environments (such as college campuses) over the years, and has continued to be a focus in public health,” Rauzon said, “all the way up to work now on limiting sugar-sweetened beverages access in other public institutions.”
Rauzon's change-management and communication skills also were crucial in studying the revolutionary School Lunch Initiative in the Berkeley Unified School District – a collaboration with chef Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Foundation and the Center for Ecoliteracy to engage young people in the growing and preparation of food. Brought in to evaluate the efficacy of the program, Wang and Rauzon found they had to alter their mindset and methods when working with partners who were responding to oft-changing circumstances.
Rauzon's cross-sector perspective, practical know-how and people skills in cultivating positive relationships with district staff and educators were instrumental in successfully completing studies with as much rigor as possible in real-world settings such as schools.
The researchers created new analytical tools to evaluate health interventions developed by communities themselves – as opposed to programs engineered by academics and applied to community members with the expectation that they would accept it.
“Most researchers, to be honest, are still striving to do that with communities,” Wang said. “It is an incredibly challenging task because communities will do what they want to do – and what they need to do – to respond to the needs of people.”
Wang, who now trains academics in community-based participatory research, said that the ground-up paradigm has been shaped by Rauzon's thinking. “A lot of the ideas I have today really came about from our work together on the School Lunch Initiative,” Wang said.
A legacy of new methods, mentoring early-career professionals
One of Rauzon's longest-running – and most complex – projects has been the evaluation of community health interventions across the country, including a variety of Kaiser Permanente initiatives to promote healthy eating and physical activity.
“What was interesting about that work was we really were trying to understand the combined effects of doing a lot of different things that are related – and to see the overall effect that can have on the community,” said Rauzon, noting that interventions ranged from nutrition classes to policy changes to park and bike-safety improvements.
Wang said some of their findings, particularly from one study in Los Angeles County, suggest that effective programs are early childhood interventions (including an emphasis on breastfeeding), home visitations by nurses and social workers to vulnerable households, and partnerships with retailers to make healthy food choices more accessible.
In the process, the researchers helped pioneer new research tools – including interdisciplinary “systems mapping” approaches in which computer scientists discern linkages among various programs and their effects, and the highly influential “community intervention dose index” concept that can be used to evaluate multiple intervention strategies within a community.
In addition to Rauzon's contributions in research and evaluation, Ritchie also highlighted her role in supervising and mentoring students and NPI staff and researchers during her 20-plus years with the UC – the role in which Rauzon takes the most pride.
“While I made a contribution to community health in effective interventions and how to measure them,” Rauzon said, “I would say personally the most rewarding part of the work I've done over the last couple of decades is seeing the growth and development and advancement of people who have worked for me and who have really taken off in their own careers – that to me has been immensely satisfying.”
As an emeritus researcher, Rauzon will continue to support NPI professionals and their research, and she added that she's excited to embark on a new partnership – with her husband, a geographer – to mitigate impacts of climate change on human and environmental health across the globe.
People interested in supporting Rauzon'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./h3>/h3>/h3>
- Author: Linda J Forbes
In 2020, agencies and experts in Colusa County came together for a project evaluating winter cover crops (planted in the fall and terminated in late winter or early spring) in annual crop rotations. This project had a large outreach component and various cover crops were planted each year to demonstrate how well they grew in the region.
During the three-year project, the team has significantly increased soil health outreach in the region and built a strong regional collaboration that continues for other projects. The research findings will be published upon completion of analysis.
Funded by the California Department of Food and Agriculture Healthy Soils Program, the collaboration involved measuring changes in soil health between two cover crop treatments and a fallow control and led to innovation in outreach methods to make healthy soil practices more accessible.
Promoting soil health during a pandemic lockdown was a major challenge for the project team, comprising Sarah Light, UC Cooperative Extension agronomy farm advisor; Liz Harper, executive director of the Colusa County Resource Conservation District; Davis Ranch; Richter Ag; and the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service.
Unable to conduct in-person field days or workshops, Light and Harper created a YouTube channel called “The Soil Health Connection” and produced 29 episodes in English and five in Spanish. These episodes featured soil health experts from around the state. In addition, field demonstrations were recorded including soil sampling demonstrations, a cover crop field tour, soil health field assessments following NRCS protocols, and more.
“The collaboration was effective not only in sharing information on how to manage cover crops, but also allowed us to continue to extend knowledge and do outreach during COVID, when regular in-person programming was not available,” Light said.
Interviewees included researchers, farmers, ranchers, industry representatives, technical assistance providers and natural resource conservation agency representatives. The YouTube channel has over 200 subscribers and won the 2021 Conservation Education Award from the California-Nevada Chapter of the Soil and Water Conservation Society.
NRCS collaborated on six of the episodes and featured them in their statewide Soil Health newsletter. Participants included Resource Soil Scientist Jacqueline Vega-Pérez, Regional Soil Health Specialist Kabir Zahangir, California Plant Material Director Margaret Smither-Kopperl, Colusa County Soil Conservationist Brandi Murphy, California State Conservationist Carlos Suarez, and USDA Research Soil Scientist Claire Phillips.
Other innovations included hosting a virtual field day with continuing education credits and two drive-by, in-person field tours. The project itself was innovative in terms of conducting virtual and in-person outreach in Colusa County.
“We were one of the first in the region to organize virtual soil health events and because of our strong project team were able to quickly pivot to comply with state and local regulations during the pandemic,” Light said.
Outreach is critical to advancing soil health because it demonstrates successful, economically viable practices that farmers can implement. “The opportunity for growers to see these practices first-hand in our growing conditions can break down barriers to implementation,” said Light.
A lasting benefit of the project has been the interagency collaborative relationship they developed.
“Colusa County RCD loves partnering with UC Cooperative Extension on research to improve soil health in the Sacramento Valley,” said Harper. “It's wonderful working with Sarah as our agencies both share a vision for scaling the adoption of conservation in agriculture.”
“We brought together our different strengths and created something even stronger,” said Light. “This has brought other advantages as well, like workforce and career development, reduced isolation and a stronger natural resource community, and conservation technical assistance enhancement.”
Building trust and demonstrating a mutual commitment to service have been personally rewarding for Light as well. She emphasized the importance of seeking out people with complementary skill sets and maintaining the relationships effectively.
The team is continuing to work together on other soil health-related work in the region.