- Author: Mike Hsu
After harvesting and cooking their produce, students ask for seconds of kale
How do you get notoriously finicky sixth graders to eat their leafy greens? Have them grow the vegetables themselves.
Students in Riverside have that unique opportunity through a hands-on gardening and nutrition class at Ysmael Villegas Middle School, with help from CalFresh Healthy Living, University of California Cooperative Extension Riverside County (a part of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources).
“We have middle schoolers asking for seconds and thirds of kale – that's not something that's typical!” said Claudia Carlos, program supervisor for CalFresh Healthy Living, UCCE Riverside, which implements SNAP-Ed locally (the educational arm of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps).
Growing and tending kale, mint and snap peas in two wheelbarrow gardens on the Villegas campus, the second cohort of students capped their 12-week class with a cooking lesson. A simple recipe combining their kale with tomatoes, onions and coconut milk was a big hit.
“It's one thing to tell youth they should eat healthy, but not until they actually grow the food do they actually take a lot of pride in that food they've grown and harvested,” Carlos explained.
By the end of this school year, about 75 students (in three cohorts) will have taken the class, during which they explore career pathways in gardening, agriculture and nutrition – while cultivating new skills and healthy habits such as choosing nutritious snacks and incorporating exercise into their day. Techniques developed by the UC help encourage effective behavior change.
“In this exploratory class, I've learned how to plant, and take care of plants,” wrote one student, in evaluating the class. “I can use these skills later on in life most likely, and I also learned how to be more healthy.”
Teachers observed that other students also have taken steps to apply their new skills and knowledge.
“They become more confident in themselves and their abilities to make healthy choices for themselves and their families – and to advocate for their parents to buy that kale and actually eat it,” said Daisy Valdez, community education specialist for CalFresh Healthy Living, UCCE Riverside, who is helping teach the class.
Valdez also has been training Villegas teacher Kim Weiss, so that Weiss – a first-year full-time teacher – is empowered to teach future cohorts. Both Valdez and Weiss noticed that nearly all of the youth have been enthusiastic about getting their hands in the soil, watering and weeding regularly – even taking care of the “worm hotel.”
“Students are very invested in the plants, how they are doing and their well-being,” Weiss said. “They ask if they can come back to the class and help care for the plants and worms; students worry about who will take care of the plants and worms after they leave.”
In addition to basic gardening and cooking skills, the class also incorporates lessons about herbs and spices, beneficial insects and pollinators, and cultural dimensions of food. The kale cooking lesson, which recently took place during Black History Month, presented a chance to teach about African food and culinary traditions.
“It allows them to not just connect to the garden but also to connect to their peers and to connect to the world around them,” said Valdez, who added that the garden, planted in a pair of cheerful red wheelbarrows, also beautifies the campus and sparks conversations among their schoolmates about food systems.
The Villegas partnership with CalFresh Healthy Living, UCCE Riverside also benefits the entire school in other ways, with programs reaching hundreds of students and community members. In spring 2021, under Valdez's supervision, students created a “food access board” that shows how to obtain healthy and affordable food through CalFresh EBT, farmers markets, WIC and other resources.
The board, which has been set up in the library, cafeteria and lobby, is seen and used by students and family members. Valdez also engaged parents and the broader community by hosting gardening and nutrition workshops.
This year, Villegas students will have the opportunity to further deepen their cultural connections through a new Youth Participatory Action Research project, in which they explore their personal and family histories through the lens of a meaningful and healthy food item, practice or tradition. Youth will then share their findings with school peers and administrators.
As Carlos noted, these young people will not forget such engaging and immersive experiences with food any time soon. In their evaluations, many students wrote that they learned valuable lessons about compost, care for plants and insects, and healthy eating.
And, as one sixth grader said: “I also learned that kale and coconut milk is amazing!”
- Author: Mike Hsu
Partnering for California
As the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic hit communities across the U.S. in mid-March 2020, the policy team at UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' Nutrition Policy Institute received an urgent email from a longtime partner in the San Joaquin Valley.
“It was simply entitled ‘help' in the subject line – with multiple exclamation points,” said Christina Hecht, NPI senior policy advisor.
The colleague was writing on behalf of community groups concerned that pandemic-related school closures would jeopardize school meal programs – a nutritional lifeline for children in a predominantly agricultural region with many low-income households.
Hecht immediately contacted a frequent collaborator, Dr. Anisha Patel, an associate professor of pediatrics at Stanford University. To help school districts continue those essential meals during the fast-approaching spring holiday, they quickly produced a fact sheet, “Kids' Hunger Doesn't Take a Spring Break,” sharing tips and resources for the districts.
Then, as the pandemic evolved throughout 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and California Department of Education continued to issue a flurry of waivers and guidance updates. To keep pace, the authors produced three more fact sheets to help districts digest the information and adapt and sustain their school meal programs.
“We tried to make a really user-friendly resource that would help districts sort through everything they needed to do, and easily discover resources for best practices,” Hecht said.
Their efforts attracted the attention of the School Nutrition Association, a prominent nonprofit representing more than 50,000 members who provide meals to students across the country. The organization co-branded general versions of the fact sheets and distributed them widely through its website.
Gathering community perspectives on school meals
Those resources represent just one way that lessons from the San Joaquin Valley experience are shaping the national conversation on school nutrition programs. Cultiva La Salud and Dolores Huerta Foundation – health equity and social justice organizations based in Fresno and Bakersfield, respectively – approached the researchers to study ways to boost participation in school meal programs and address food insecurity in their largely Latino communities.
“Working alongside Stanford and NPI is crucial in expanding our capacity and ability to use data and research as a tool to empower parents to advocate for improved health and wellness policies and practices,” said Cecilia Castro, deputy director of Dolores Huerta Foundation, which works in Kern, Fresno and Tulare counties, as well as Antelope Valley in Los Angeles County.
To better understand the “barriers and facilitators” to meal program participation, Hecht, Patel and their collaborators – including student trainees who were eager to learn about community-based participatory research and wanted to help their local communities – sought the perspectives of school district administrators and staff, community groups and parents.
Through the relationships nurtured by Cultiva La Salud and Dolores Huerta Foundation, the researchers convened focus groups of parents with children in six school districts across the San Joaquin Valley.
“We needed to understand better what helped and hindered families from getting the school meals,” Hecht said.
According to Castro, parents have leveraged their feedback to advocate for increased access to school meals, through the use of buses for meal delivery and changes to meal pickup times and locations.
“This engagement has validated the lived experience of our communities,” Castro said. “It has provided an additional strategy for parent leaders to use in efforts to engage decision-makers about ways to improve quality and access to school meals.”
Another key takeaway from these conversations is that the parents are deeply concerned about the content and nutritive value of the meals served to their children.
“We learned that although school meals meet nutrition standards, parents are not aware of this,” Patel said. “Parents also worry about the healthfulness of school meals, noting heavy processing and added sugar. Most compelling was that parents want to provide feedback to improve school meal appeal and healthfulness but have no way to act.”
San Joaquin Valley voices reverberate
The Nutrition Policy Institute played a crucial role in bringing the parents' perspectives to legislative staffs at the state and federal levels, through the production of four policy briefs that center the voices of San Joaquin Valley residents. In the first, “School Meals: Kids Are Sweeter with Less Sugar,” one parent says: “Children cannot sustain themselves on treats that give pure sugar…They give with the best intentions, but less food would be better, but better quality and healthier.”
“One of the most rewarding parts of all this work has been seeing how meaningful it has been for the parents in the San Joaquin Valley to see their voices getting carried all the way to Washington, D.C. by these policy briefs,” said Hecht. “And it was so meaningful for them that Cultiva La Salud had the briefs translated into Spanish so that the parents could actually read their own words.”
Their voices joined a chorus comprising over 200 organizations who called for universal school meals across California. In June, the state became the first in the nation to adopt a policy, starting in the 2022-2023 school year, to provide free meals for all K through 12 public school students, regardless of family income. Momentum continues to build on the national scale.
The next step for the team is to explore ways to make school meals even more appealing to potential program participants in the Latino communities of San Joaquin Valley. Patel said they will draw on the expertise of Szu-chi Huang, associate professor of marketing in Stanford's Graduate School of Business.
“Using a participatory approach, we will work with parents and school officials to design an intervention focused on communicating the benefits of school meals, and test strategies to improve the appeal of school meals,” Patel explained. “Then we will examine how that intervention affects parents' satisfaction with school meals, students' participation in meals and food insecurity.”
Those insights will be another valuable result of a unique partnership – spurred by a call for help and galvanized by the ongoing health crisis – that continues to benefit families across California.
“Our partnership has been very unusual and very fruitful because we had policy experts, we had research experts and trainees, and then we had the organizations actually working in the community,” Hecht said. “And as we look back on it, it's hard to imagine working that successfully without that kind of partnership.”/h3>/h3>/h3>
- Author: Pamela Kan-Rice
Pest management professionals can learn about the requirements of California's Healthy Schools Act by taking a free online course provided by the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (UC IPM), part of University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR).
To minimize children's exposure to pesticides, California requires pest control operators providing services in schools and licensed child care centers to comply with a series of laws called the Healthy Schools Act. The laws promote integrated pest management (IPM) in public K–12 schools and licensed private child care centers.
The free course Providing Integrated Pest Management Services in Schools and Child Care Settings explains what the Healthy Schools Act requires of schools, child care centers and pest control companies when managing pests in these environments.
"Taking the online course makes it easier to understand and comply with the laws," said Andrew Sutherland, UC ANR Cooperative Extension IPM advisor. "Pest management professionals can take the course at their convenience. It tells them everything they need to know about the Healthy Schools Act and IPM in order to do business with a school or child care center."
The course also includes a section on how companies can prosper by incorporating IPM principles and practices into their businesses.
"This is an opportunity for operators to take their businesses to the next level by adopting IPM practices," Sutherland said. "IPM effectively and efficiently manages pests, builds professionalism within providers, and captures value for the customer while minimizing pesticide applications, pesticide exposures and associated negative impacts on children's health, the environment and the larger community."
Licensed pest-management professionals can receive continuing education units by completing the online course: one "Rules and Regulations" and one "IPM" from the Structural Pest Control Board; and one "Laws and Regulations" and one "Other" from the Department of Pesticide Regulation.
UC Berkeley's Center for Environmental Research and Children's Health is developing a database of individuals who complete the course so that schools and child care centers can connect with pest control providers who are familiar with IPM and the Healthy Schools Act.
The training module was developed by Sutherland and collaborators at UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco, with input from California pest management professionals and child care providers.
To take the free Providing Integrated Pest Management Services in Schools and Child Care Settings course, see the UC IPM website http://ucanr.edu/ipm4schools.
This project was funded by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation Pest Management Alliance Program. For more information about the Healthy Schools Act, visit the California Department of Pesticide Regulation's School IPM web page http://apps.cdpr.ca.gov/schoolipm.
An initiative to maintain and enhance healthy families and communities is part of the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Strategic Vision 2025.