- Author: Michael Hsu
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>
Reduction of SNAP benefit deepens crisis of inflation, high cost of living, low wages
Starting this month, many of the estimated 3 million people in the CalFresh program – California's version of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) – will be facing hunger and making difficult decisions to meet their most basic needs. In late March, participants received the last of the pandemic-related emergency aid that significantly boosted their monthly benefits. The reduction varies by household size and income; for example, in April a single-person household could see a drop from $281 per month to $23.
“The emergency food allotments had a tremendous impact in our communities and across the nation,” said Shannon Klisch, academic coordinator for the Youth, Families and Communities Program for UC Cooperative Extension in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. “One study estimated that these allotments kept more than 4 million people out of poverty across the U.S. in the last quarter of 2021, and reduced child poverty by 14%.”
SNAP increases during the pandemic made many Californians more food-secure, with some participants reporting that their allotments finally had been enough to feed their families for the month, according to Wendi Gosliner, a project scientist at the Nutrition Policy Institute (a program of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources). But, with the benefit reductions, food insecurity is emerging again as a serious concern.
“It is inconceivable that a nation this wealthy should have so many people experiencing hunger,” Gosliner said. “And here in California, with the high cost of living, ongoing inflation and extreme income and wealth disparities, people are being forced to explore every possible avenue just to feed themselves and their families.”
To help ensure they are receiving the maximum allotment, Klisch recommends that CalFresh participants – especially those who applied during the pandemic and are relatively new to the program – double-check their information.
“If the county doesn't have your most up-to-date information, call your county worker if you've changed your address, if you've experienced decreased income, if your housing costs have gone up, or if you have new expenses – like child or dependent care expenses or medical expenses – these can help you qualify for more CalFresh funds,” she explained.
For families with school-aged children, Klisch said they can stretch their food dollars and promote healthy eating by encouraging their children to eat breakfast and lunch at school through California's universal free school meals, and all families with children under 18 can watch for the next issuance of the P-EBT (Pandemic EBT) card, worth potentially hundreds of dollars.
In addition to these options for food assistance, Klisch pointed to programs that can help people save money on other household expenses, such as California Alternate Rates for Energy Programs (CARE) and Affordable Connectivity Program. Local food banks are also gearing up across the state to handle an expected surge in clients in need of emergency food; a list of California food banks can be found at cafoodbanks.org/our-members.
“We ask a lot of low-income families and workers to navigate and piece together various programs, applications, and benefits when we don't commit to a strong safety net,” Klisch said. “On the other hand, when people have enough money for food, everyone benefits through decreased health care costs and increased economic activity.”
Gosliner also said that people should look into their eligibility for WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children), as well as the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and CalEITC, poverty-alleviation benefits underused by Californians.
“People should make sure they are accessing all the safety net benefits for which they are eligible,” Gosliner said.
Market Match, other nutrition incentive programs can help
Through programs like Market Match, available at about 300 farmers markets across California affiliated with the Ecology Center, CalFresh participants can have their EBT benefits “matched” by their local market (usually up to $10 or $15 per visit).
“People are looking to get creative about how to stretch their food dollars, and Market Match is one way to do that,” said Klisch, who has led UCCE efforts to help promote the program along the Central Coast since 2017.
Striving to expand access to fresh fruit and vegetables and to support local farms, UCCE and CalFresh Healthy Living, UC worked with partners to increase CalFresh redemption at farmers markets in San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara counties.
In 2017, about $48,000 in CalFresh and Market Match benefits were redeemed at farmers markets in the area. In 2022, the total was more than $207,000 – a 327% increase. According to Ecology Center figures for the entire state, CalFresh and Market Match spending at farmers markets jumped 161% from 2019 to 2021, up to $13 million.
Gosliner, whose research has shown that these nutrition incentive programs are associated with increased food security, noted that “the people who use Market Match absolutely love the program and feel it is incredibly helpful.” She also added that the California Department of Social Services is developing a pilot program that would offer match incentives for purchasing fruits and vegetables at larger food retailers.
Although the biggest of its kind, Market Match is just one of the programs across California that provide “matches” for healthy food purchases under the California Nutrition Incentive Program, which in turn is primarily funded by GusNIP (the nationwide Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program).
GusNIP dollars – and SNAP overall – are governed by the federal Farm Bill, typically renewed every five years and currently being negotiated by Congress./h3>/h3>
Program with Foothill Indian Education Alliance teaches healthy eating to young people of many tribes
More than a tutoring center, the Foothill Indian Education Alliance facility in Placerville also provides cultural activities for youth in El Dorado and Amador counties affiliated with a broad diversity of Native American tribes.
In addition to traditional crafts like drum- and jewelry-making, the center began offering a food component last summer, through a partnership with CalFresh Healthy Living, University of California – one of the agencies in the state that teaches nutrition to people eligible for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).
“A lot of the kids, because they don't live on a reservation or their family might not be connected to a local tribe, don't know a lot of their history or their foods,” said Cailin McLaughlin, nutrition educator for CalFresh Healthy Living, UC, based at the UC Cooperative Extension office in El Dorado County. “Food is a good way to explore any heritage because food is at the central point of a lot of cultures and customs – sharing meals and sharing stories behind it.”
Last spring, McLaughlin worked with Hal Sherry, the head tutor at Foothill Indian Education Alliance, to create a new, five-week “summer camp” during which youth would learn about and prepare Native foods in the center's kitchen, primarily with ingredients from its backyard garden.
Sherry said that the experience provided the participants – 10 elementary school students and seven middle or high school students – an important perspective on the interconnectedness of all living things.
“Part of the objective of the program is for them to understand that each one of us is part of the natural order of things, and that we have to do our part to fit into that cycle,” he explained. “There's kind of an ecological lesson that's also being learned…and we don't want to put poisons in our bodies, and we don't want to put poisons in our environment.”
Program combines cultural lessons, nutrition information
For the summer program, McLaughlin selected a curriculum centered on garden-based nutrition, and infused it with elements of Indigenous food ways.
“We predominantly picked ingredients that had cultural significance to Native American communities, so things like blueberries, blackberries, pine nuts, squash, things of that nature,” she said. “So we could feed into the history of that ingredient, why it's important to the Indigenous communities – and then give (the students) the nutritional information about it.”
After the youth prepared chia seed parfaits – from a recipe that is part of a series developed by CalFresh Healthy Living, the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center, and the Center for Wellness and Nutrition – a Foothill Indian Education Alliance staff member shared that Native hunters would eat chia seeds for strength before a long hunt.
Many of the participants had never had chia seeds before, and the parfaits were an “absolute favorite,” in the words of McLaughlin.
“I wish we could have made them more often!” said Lacey, a fifth grader who participates in the center's programs year-round.
In addition to working outside in the garden, Lacey said she also liked cooking in the kitchen during the summer camp – and the fact that the young people could take the lead.
“It was all the kids doing it, but (McLaughlin) was just supervising and making sure we were doing it right – it was really nice,” said Lacey, who identifies as Miwok.
Sharing within families, across tribes
Active participation by the young people is one of the strengths of the program, according to Sherry. He expressed admiration for McLaughlin's engaging teaching style, which eschews “lectures” and instead draws the participants into lively conversations about the nutritional content of the ingredients.
“Hopefully they're going to retain some of that knowledge and information and then remember: ‘You know what, yes, I think I would like to have some corn and some beans tonight, because that's going to help my bones grow strong and my eyesight get better,'” Sherry said. “That's really a big part of what we want them to come away with.”
At the end of the summer program, participants also came away with a binder of recipes from a cookbook of Native American dishes, “Young, Indigenous and Healthy: Recipes Inspired by Today's Native Youth.” James Marquez, director of the Foothill Indian Education Alliance, said he heard from students that they were bringing many of the lessons from the program back to their homes.
“I've heard the same kind of thing from parents and grandparents, who have said how wonderful that was and that kids come back home and have an interest in cooking and trying to serve nutritious meals to their families,” Marquez said.
That crucial sharing of knowledge also happens between and among staff members and students, as the center comprises members of many tribes, from South Dakota Lakota to Navajo.
“We serve Native people, we don't care what tribe they come from – they're all welcome,” Marquez said. “What we do represents a lot of different tribes, so we share information from one tribe to another, and that way people can appreciate everybody and what we have to bring to the table.”
Talia, a sixth grader who participated in the summer program, said that she enjoys that cultural sharing.
“I like how I can learn new things…and how I learn more about the people around me,” she explained. “It's also fun to learn about other people's cultures, and what Native American they are, too.”
McLaughlin went on to partner with Foothill Indian Education Alliance on a “Cooking Academy” program during this past fall, and is planning another spring/summer program for 2023, as well. The ongoing teaching and sharing of food ways is just one part of a long process to recover and rebuild Native American cultural traditions.
“Unfortunately, there was a very concerted effort to obliterate the Native culture on this continent; it was a very intentional, very deliberate effort to just stamp that culture out like it had somehow never existed,” Sherry said. “Now there's a much greater awareness of what a terrible thing that was, and so it's like trying to regrow a new garden over an area that was severely burned…and it's being done all over the country.”/h3>/h3>/h3>
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>
A U.S. federal government shutdown can represent a minor inconvenience, a delay in paychecks, or – for people living in some of the most difficult circumstances – an extended period of hunger and anxiety.
A study published recently in the journal Nutrients provides a unique glimpse into the shutdown experiences of participants in CalFresh – California's name for the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps). Currently, about 42 million people participate in SNAP across the U.S.
In focus groups conducted in 2019 with 26 low-income CalFresh participants from four diverse California counties, participants shared how the 2018-19 federal government shutdown affected their SNAP benefits, their perception of the program and their faith in government.
One of the immediate effects of the 2018-19 shutdown was that February CalFresh benefits were distributed in January. And while that meant program participants saw extra benefits that month, they then had to wait 40 to 44 days until the March issuance – much longer than the usual 28 to 31 day cycle.
“What we saw with this study is that this extended lag in benefit receipt from January to March was devastating,” said Wendi Gosliner, senior researcher and policy advisor at the Nutrition Policy Institute of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, and an author of the study funded by UC ANR.
She recalled one participant who, despite having a gastrointestinal issue that requires a special diet, had to eat canned food from the food bank that made her sick – rather than go hungry while waiting for her March benefits. Others described cascading financial challenges after using rent money for food in February, or going into debt to pay for food and getting behind on other expenses.
The study also chronicles the experiences of a woman who was anguished to hear the suffering of her daughter, also a CalFresh participant: “She called me several times crying, ‘Ma, I don't – we don't have enough food. What am I going to do…? You know, I can't afford to this and this and this.' And I can't help her.”
For individuals grappling with food insecurity, the stress of feeding their families was compounded by the uncertainties of the government shutdown. And while many participants exercised their agency and resourcefulness in coping with the situation, they also felt a degree of powerlessness amid the “confusion and craziness,” as one person put it.
“No one knew how long that shutdown was going to last; no one knew if the March benefits were going to be paid,” Gosliner said. “And as we learned, there were all kinds of stories circulating out there about what was going on with the uncertainty – a lot of people didn't have the information about what was actually happening.”
Some participants, seeing the “double benefit” in January 2019, thought that it was the last-ever distribution and that SNAP was ending. Others described being unable to get in touch with the CalFresh agency to get their questions answered about the benefits. Most participants had not heard about the disrupted benefit schedule before receiving the benefits. As a result, many people in the focus groups shared that their overall faith in government had been shaken.
Improving customer service, boosting benefit levels and adjusting eligibility and benefit formulas to reflect high cost-of-living and expenses related to working were three recommendations that came from the focus group participants.
A fourth recommendation tackles the shutdown issue head-on: Don't let it happen again.
“Congress should do absolutely everything in their power to be sure that the program operates on the usual time schedule – even if the government is shut down,” Gosliner said.
In the context of the global pandemic, when financial and social inequities and physical and mental health disparities have been laid bare, ensuring access to healthful food is even more important. And with studies showing that hospitalizations increase with longer lags between SNAP distributions, Gosliner said the “absolute last thing” the overburdened health system needs is more people in emergency departments seeking acute care.
“It's the worst time to be having people who need money to feed their families face additional insecurity,” she said. “It's critically important that Congress acts to be sure that there is not any disruption in benefits.”
The authors of the study, “Participants' Experiences of the 2018–2019 Government Shutdown and Subsequent Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Benefit Disruption Can Inform Future Policy,” are Wendi Gosliner, Wei-Ting Chen, Cathryn Johnson, Elsa Michelle Esparza, Natalie Price, Ken Hecht and Lorrene Ritchie.
The study can be found online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7353319.