- Author: Mike Hsu
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./h3>/h3>/h3>
- Author: Mike Hsu
During summer swarming season, homeowners urged to check for signs of Formosan subterranean termite
In the lottery of troublesome termite infestations, “Roger,” a Rancho Santa Fe homeowner, hit the jackpot (a pseudonym is used to protect his privacy). In 2021, his house in San Diego County was identified as home to only the fourth documented colony of the Formosan subterranean termite (Coptotermes formosanus) in California.
“FST is one of the most destructive urban pests in the world,” said University of California, Riverside entomologist Chow-Yang Lee, affiliated with UC Agriculture and Natural Resources through the campus' Agricultural Experiment Station. “It's also the only termite species listed in the ‘100 of the World's Worst Invasive Alien Species.'”
Endemic to East Asia, this termite is now established in many tropical and subtropical regions, including across the American South. Annually, its infestation costs more than $4 billion in control measures and damage repairs of structures in the U.S.
FST was first discovered in California in La Mesa (San Diego County) in 1992, and it was rediscovered in that city in 2018. Another infestation was reported in Canyon Lake (Riverside County) in 2020. And then, the following year, Roger received his surprise.
“Imagine being in your kitchen looking at your drywall and it's totally normal and then the next day there's a four-inch hole there and you're like ‘What the heck is that? Who put their elbow into the drywall?'” he recalled.
FST colonies can reach millions of individuals
Roger hired a pest control company, Green Flash Pest Control, which sprayed a powerful liquid termiticide in the soil around the house. But the termites – workers, soldiers and winged “alates” – continued to appear. The company tried a second application of soil treatment. But, again, the termites kept popping up.
“We were deeply concerned about the potential damage these termites could cause to the home since these invasive termites are extremely destructive,” said Eric Veronick, director of operations at Green Flash. “Unfortunately, there isn't a whole lot of information available on the behavior and management of this termite in California.”
“Some colonies are aerial, meaning that they are formed above the ground with limited or no connection to the soil – in such cases, soil treatment using contact insecticides may not be very effective in managing these termites,” Taravati said. “Furthermore, contact insecticides usually kill a much smaller portion of the colony when compared to termite baits.”
To make matters worse, once FST is established in an area, there have been no records of successful eradication anywhere in the world, according to Taravati. He added that a major reason why the Formosan subterranean termite is so destructive is the enormous size of their colonies.
“Their colonies can reach millions of individuals, versus most native subterranean species that reach a few hundred thousand individual termites per colony,” Taravati explained.
This termite, through its sheer numbers, can turn the wood in a structure into a “spongy kind of cake,” in Taravati's words. More than 10 pounds of wood in a house can be eaten by a mature colony each month. The financial hit for a homeowner can be substantial, up to tens of thousands of dollars – not to mention the increased risks to safety.
“Anything from studs to rafters to door frames and window frames – everything is going to be compromised, if the termites are left unchecked. And then, as soon as we have a major stress on the building, let's say there's a big storm or an earthquake – there's a high risk of at least part of the building collapsing,” said Taravati, who also noted that, unlike California native subterranean termite species, FST can attack and kill live trees and plants.
“These termites can be a nightmare,” he said.
Summer is ‘swarming season' for FST
Since the Rancho Santa Fe case in 2021, four more colonies have been documented, in La Mesa again and also in Highland Park, Hollywood Hills and La Verne (the latter three in Los Angeles County). Taravati said it's possible that FST has been spreading via structural lumber or potted plants and soil.
And even if a colony appears to be eliminated at a certain locale, Taravati noted, there is always the chance that part of the colony survives or more colonies of termites already have been established in nearby locations, as a result of swarming termites from the originally infested property.
Although nominally “subterranean,” certain members of an FST colony grow wings and fly to nearby locations to establish new colonies. These winged alates are also called swarmers because of their behavior during the “swarming” season, when termites mate and reproduce.
For the Formosan subterranean termite, that swarming season in California is late May through early August, so now is the time for homeowners and building managers in southern and central California to keep an eye out for those winged termites.
“If you experience a termite swarm in your house, contact a pest management professional and keep some termite samples in a Ziploc bag in the event you need to send the samples to UC Riverside for morphological and DNA-based identifications,” said Lee, who added that it's a good idea to periodically check your structure for signs of infestation, such as wood damage or shelter tubes (mud tubes).
Lee said FST swarmers have a lighter colored body compared to the dark color of native subterranean termites and the orange-brown body of drywood termite swarmers (see this flyer for additional identification information).
Following an especially wet winter, there's a chance California could see more FST infestations, as this termite generally requires moist environments to thrive, Lee added. He recommends that concerned community members seek professional advice.
“Do not attempt to control an FST infestation by yourself,” Lee said. “This is not your typical native Californian subterranean termite species; they are highly destructive, and you want to intercept the problem with the right strategy before it's too late.”
Homeowner: ‘I owe them my house'
In Roger's case, Taravati enlisted the help of Lee and his UC colleague, Greg Kund. They made multiple visits to inspect the home and analyze the situation – going “above and beyond,” according to Roger.
At Lee's suggestion, they used a caulk gun to insert a gel-like experimental bait into the wall where the termites were coming out. Once spread and passed on to the other nestmates, the product – which contains a chitin synthesis inhibitor (a type of insect growth regulator) – interrupts the termites' development so they are unable to properly molt and replace the short-lived “workforce” of foragers and soldiers. The colony eventually collapses and is eliminated.
“Generally speaking, IGRs are much more effective, but they require more patience,” Taravati explained. “You're not going to see the results the next day, or two-three days. You're going to see the results in a few weeks – but when you see the results, it's massive.”
And that's exactly what Roger and Green Flash Pest Control saw.
“Soon after their bait application, the termites stopped emerging from the walls and that gave us and the homeowner a big sigh of relief,” Veronick said. “I appreciate their expertise and dedication in helping us get rid of this destructive pest."
Roger said he is immensely grateful to the UC team.
“They were fantastic; I owe them my house,” he said. “They were super gracious and helpful and responsive and – ultimately, the thing I care most about – they were effective; they fixed the problem. Here we are two years later and – knock on wood, or maybe I should knock on something else! – everything is good.”
Lee also credited Taravati for bringing his knowledge and “can-do” attitude to communities across Southern California.
“He is highly knowledgeable and always able to come up with feasible solutions,” Lee said. “We need good Cooperative Extension urban IPM advisors like Siavash who could provide good advice and bring solutions to the stakeholders, be they homeowners or pest management professionals.”
Taravati said community members need to maintain their vigilance and urges them to download and share the FST flyer that includes identification tips and contact information. He said they are always free to e-mail him with their concerns and photos of suspected FST – not only to help stop the spread of the pest but to expand scientific understanding.
“This termite is so new to California – even for us, as researchers. Despite being in La Mesa since the 1990s, it wasn't until 2020 when these termites were detected in other places, including Riverside and Los Angeles counties,” Taravati explained. “All of us need to learn more about this pest and closely monitor the behavior of this pest.”/h3>/h3>/h3>/h3>
- Author: Saoimanu Sope
Besides starting fires for the sake of research, Luca Carmignani, UC Cooperative Extension fire advisor for San Diego, Orange, Los Angeles, and Riverside counties, has started leveraging his connection to local UC campuses by providing opportunities for hands-on learning.
Early one morning in May, students and staff from UC Irvine and UC Riverside gathered at the South Coast Research and Extension Center to collect data for their own research projects. South Coast REC, located in Irvine, is part of a statewide network of research and education facilities operated by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources.
In one area of the field, graduate students picked leaves and twigs from dried shrubs, carefully placing them in a device that measures moisture content. In another area, a postdoctoral scholar set up a device that records levels of particulate matter, carbon dioxide and other air pollutants emitted by a fire.
Tirtha Banerjee, professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UC Irvine, coordinated the field day with Carmignani. The two first connected as members of iFireNet, an international network of networks that connect people to fire research, when Carmignani was a postdoctoral researcher at UC Berkeley.
Now, the two are collaborating to help environmental science and engineering students realize the potential of their research interests.
Jacquelynn Nguyen, a Ph.D. student in the Civil and Environmental Engineering department at UC Irvine, is interested in understanding how ash from wildfires and prescribed burns can be used as a treatment for per- and polyfluorinated substances. PFAS are a group of “forever chemicals” that can be found in heat-resistant materials – including fire extinguisher foam – and are extremely difficult to eliminate.
Before Nguyen could collect her ash samples, Carmignani needed to cautiously set the dried shrubs on fire, providing a realistic situation for data collection purposes.
“We're trying to figure out if the ashes from these fires can be used as activated carbon, which could be used as a treatment for PFAS,” said Nguyen. “We want to see if this treatment can basically absorb PFAS and prevent it from traveling into soil and groundwater.”
While Nguyen is concerned about the impact that wildfires have on the land, Soroush Neyestani, a postdoctoral scholar in the Environmental Sciences department at UC Riverside, is interested in its impact on the air quality.
During a fire, it's difficult to determine how much emissions are a result of flames versus smoldering, the process of burning slowly with smoke but no flames, and current air quality models do not provide accurate guidance on this matter. Using an air quality sensor, Neyestani wants to quantify the difference in emission levels during the two phases.
“There are assumptions that 50% of emissions come from smoldering, but every fire is different. Our main objective is to improve the accuracy of air-quality forecasting,” Neyestani said, noting his concern that these assumptions might not be realistic.
Although the field day was created with the students in mind, Carmignani used the opportunity to polish his own research efforts. Since fall 2022, he has been investigating the flammability of low-water use landscape plants based on various irrigation applications.
“Every time we burn, I feel like we get better. We get better data, and we conduct better analysis, and that's really important for us so that we can figure out how we can apply our research and measure its outcome,” said Carmignani.
In addition to welcoming more collaborations with UC campuses and other organizations, Carmignani is hopeful that these combined research efforts will spark an interest in wildfire awareness everywhere.
- Author: Pamela Kan-Rice
New food systems partnership to aid disaster response in Del Norte, Humboldt, Mendocino, Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties
To improve people's access to food during disasters, University of California Cooperative Extension advisors Dorina Espinoza and Julia Van Soelen Kim received a combined $1.5 million from the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service Regional Food Systems Partnership Program and crucial matching contributions from local government, nonprofits and foundations. Over a three-year period, they will create a California North Coast Emergency Food System Partnership across six counties – Del Norte, Humboldt, Mendocino, Sonoma, Napa and Marin – to strengthen local and regional food systems and build community resilience.
“We wouldn't have been able to access these funds without UC providing the backbone,” said project partner Suzi Grady of Petaluma Bounty, an urban farm and food security project. “The trusted relationship with UC allows us to broaden our reach and scope; the neutrality piece is also really important. It's a natural fit for UC to step in.”
Grady added, “I'm excited by this opportunity because UC can provide evaluation, reflect back to us what happens in disasters, and help build our collective capacity when those of us who are busy doing are too busy to step back and reflect. Having academic partners helps us retain institutional knowledge, learn from the past and strategize for the future."
Meredith Knowles with the Del Norte and Tribal Lands Food Security Project agreed, “I have seen so many times that the relationship building, coordinating and making space for sharing is so important and the momentum that comes from that is powerful. I'm excited for the space to share that.”
Learning from past disasters
Following earthquakes in Humboldt County last December, UC Cooperative Extension advisor Espinoza took part in the Community Organizations Active in Disaster or “COAD,” collaborating with local government, agencies and organizations to support a Local Assistance Center in Rio Dell, the town hit hardest by the quakes.
Espinoza and partners worked to connect impacted neighbors with local, state and national services, including ensuring community members could access food right in their community through the local food bank and local food trucks, which prepared meals for residents who were unable to use their kitchens.
In January, with storms in the forecast, Mimi Enright, UCCE Sonoma County community food systems program manager, activated the COAD's Emergency Food Group in Sonoma County. She discussed with Van Soelen Kim, UCCE North Bay food systems advisor, as well as local emergency food providers, how their network could respond to food needs that might arise if flooding occurred.
“Before the storm, we met and asked, ‘What populations might be most impacted? What organizations might be offline because of the storm? Who will be able to deliver groceries and meals to sites in the community?'” Enright explained.
Further north in Del Norte County along the Oregon border, there are limited entry points and no major highways, leaving the region vulnerable to natural disasters. Road access to and from the county is frequently blocked by landslides, wildfires and floods, resulting in disruptions to food deliveries.
The Del Norte and Tribal Lands Community Food Council – a group that works to build a more local food system by providing healthy, culturally appropriate food to families – learned from past closures and from the pandemic the importance of having local and regional systems in place to better respond to the emergencies that impact the isolated area of the state. Their Choice Pacific Pantry includes local products in its food distribution programs and their Pacific Fresh Mobile Market brings food directly to vulnerable rural communities with limited access to nutritious food.
Over the past five years, Northern California has experienced catastrophic wildfires, floods, landslides, drought, earthquakes and the pandemic, all of which have put increasing pressure on local producers, the local/regional food system and emergency food aid.
“Food is implicated in every disaster,” said Patti D'Angelo Juachon with the Marin Community Foundation.
Through the various challenges to their communities, Espinoza, Enright and Van Soelen Kim have extended their expertise related to emergency food systems. Collectively the UCCE team has gained firsthand knowledge about what works well and what doesn't in getting local food to food-insecure community members. They hope to share this knowledge with partners regionally and expand collaboration at a larger scale.
“Local food production is critical to the resilience of the North Coast,” said Lynda Hopkins, Sonoma County District 5 supervisor. “I'm thrilled that UCCE will be working with our farmers to ensure that we can feed our residents healthy, local food no matter what disaster we're facing – be it future flood, fire or pandemic. This is a huge step towards food security for Northern California!”
Collaborating across the North Coast
“The Regional Food Systems Partnership Program will help to build a more resilient and stable food system in times of disaster and in times of stability,” said Heather Irwin, founder of Sonoma Family Meal. “This is very important work for the future of Northern California disaster relief efforts, and we are excited to be part of it. During disasters, Sonoma Family Meal coordinates resources between the restaurant industry and emergency meal providers in order to provide quality emergency meals for those who have been impacted.”
One way the team hopes to strengthen local and regional food systems is by reducing the risk of lost income and creating additional market channels for local food producers in emergency food supply chains. The team also plans to create a network of partners, develop emergency feeding plans, and inventory local emergency food supply chain infrastructure. They also plan to create recommendations for policies and practices that support local/regional emergency food supply chains./h3>
- Author: Saoimanu Sope
A typical day for Dee Keese starts with a 10-mile walk at 5 a.m. and her morning wraps up with a swim. Although Keese is in her late 70s, her daily routine would not surprise you if you knew what she has been doing for the last 48 years.
For nearly a half-century, Keese has been the 4-H community leader for the Palos Verdes Peninsula (PVP) club in Los Angeles County. A youth development program managed through local University of California Cooperative Extension offices, 4-H uses hands-on learning experiences to empower youth to build self-esteem and connect with their communities as emerging leaders.
“When you're pushing 80, working with young people helps to keep you young,” Keese said.
4-H has been a game changer in many ways
In the 1970s, Keese moved to the Palos Verdes area with her first-born son who had a learning disability. Others treated him differently in school, and it didn't help that he was the new kid in town. A neighbor encouraged Keese to enroll her son in 4-H.
“She told me, ‘You've got to put your son in 4-H so he can feel good about himself,'” explained Keese. “And let me tell you, it changed my life.”
In 1978, two weeks before her fifth child was born, Keese became the 4-H PVP club's community leader and has been in the role ever since.
While reflecting on her earlier days with 4-H, Keese remembered when most members were boys. Girls were not intentionally excluded at the time; clubs just didn't attract them. When girls eventually joined 4-H, it was a game changer.
“All of a sudden, the program shifted focus from solely agriculture and animals to include home economics like cooking and sewing,” Keese said. “Now, all my sons do the cooking in their homes. It's a good thing! Because we're moving away from traditional domestic duties, men and women are sharing roles, as they should be.”
The PVP 4-H club offers activities like archery, sailing, surfing and geocaching. “Everything we do is to help our youth be better as adults, out in the real world and in the workforce,” said Keese. “We're relying on the internet too much. Kids need to get outside and do things.”
Over the years, Keese has taken members – who range in age from 5 to 19 – on numerous hikes in places like Havasupai Indian Reservation and Mt. Whitney. She's taken them kayaking on the Colorado River and, these days, co-hosts old-fashioned card game nights on the weekends with other community members.
As a lifeguard and water safety instructor, Keese gives free training to interested 4-H members to become lifeguards. Training courses usually cost well over $200 per person. “If they're interested, I train them and they have another skill to use. And it benefits our club,” said Keese. “When we have pool parties or beach days, my kids are prepared to step in and help.”
‘She will help anyone and everyone at any time'
Ace Yeck, former president of the PVP 4-H club, met Keese 12 years ago and decided to become a 4-H member when he was in fourth grade, following a convincing conversation with her. “She just kept giving me opportunities,” said Yeck.
Currently a third-year undergraduate at Loyola Marymount University studying entrepreneurship, Yeck credits 4-H for preparing him for college. “I got all my community service and public speaking practice through 4-H. I remember doing beach clean-ups, feeding the homeless, helping out at the Christmas fair, and all kinds of events,” he shared.
During his years with 4-H, Yeck was elected to the state board as an ambassador before he went on to represent 4-H at the national level. “Dee encouraged me every time, so I kept going,” he said.
Keese admitted that her life is so full and fun because of 4-H. Her motivation stems from the growth and progress that her students experience. “My kids let me know when I've done something to impact their life. It keeps me motivated,” she said.
While thinking about the members she's had over the last 48 years, she couldn't help but stress how important it is that they feel safe. Keese recalls one student who is gay and had a challenging time getting his parents to understand because of religious and cultural barriers. “The family's priest called me and told me that this student felt like I was the only one who loved him,” she said.
“I can talk about Dee forever,” said Yeck. “One of her best qualities is that she will help anyone and everyone at any time. She wakes up at 5 a.m. and goes to bed at, like, 10 p.m. During that time, she's always helping people,” he added.
Because Keese comes from a different generation compared to the kids in her 4-H club, she attributes her successful impact to her ability to adapt. “If we want to keep kids in this, we've got to be flexible! And you've got to do things they like. We can't do things the way it's always been done before,” said Keese. “We have to be flexible.”
To Keese, 4-H is not just an opportunity to teach life skills or introduce kids to agriculture. It's a chance for them to build community.
“That's what I think my generation does well, having grown up in the '50s and '60s,” Keese said. “We're all about that communal living.”