- 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>
- Author: Michael Hsu
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>
A recent study finds that comprehensive school-based Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education, also known as SNAP-Ed, interventions focused on improving wellness policies and increasing physical activity opportunities are associated with better student fitness. Researchers identified predominant combinations of school-based, physical activity-focused SNAP-Ed interventions and then looked at how they affected student fitness. Study data included over 442,000 fifth and seventh-grade students attending nearly 4,300 public schools in California communities with low-income in 2016-2017. Students in schools with SNAP-Ed interventions combining policy changes and improved physical activity opportunities had better cardiorespiratory fitness, as measured by VO2 max. On average, these students had 1.17 mL/kg/min greater VO2max than students at schools without interventions. They also had greater VO2 max compared to students in schools with any other type of intervention combination. This study suggests that focusing on both wellness policy changes and increased physical activity opportunities may have a synergistic effect and may warrant prioritization in SNAP-Ed program planning and implementation. The study, published in Preventive Medicine, was conducted by Nutrition Policy Institute researchers Sridharshi Hewawitharana, Gail Woodward-Lopez, Hannah Thompson, and Wendi Gosliner; Arizona State University researchers Punam Ohri-Vachaspati and Francesco Acciai; and California Department of Public Health researcher John Pugliese.
Some US state laws require schools to provide certified physical education, or PE, teachers and a minimum amount of PE to support students in achieving 60 minutes of daily physical activity. However, adherence to these laws is low, especially in elementary schools. For example, in New York City elementary schools, adherence was only 4% in 2015. Researchers evaluated the effectiveness of PE Works, a multi-level intervention aimed at supporting elementary schools in implementing physical education (PE) in New York City. PE Works included three evidence-based interventions: providing certified PE teachers, training classroom teachers to lead PE, and implementing an audit and feedback system with coaching delivered by district-level staff. The study found that PE Works is most successful when school districts prioritize support for higher-need schools first, tailor support based on individual school needs, increase the importance of PE at the district and school level, build strong relationships between district and school staff, and provide ongoing coaching and involve parents in advocating for quality PE. The research suggests promising practices for scaling up similar interventions in school districts nationwide. Results were published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity by Hannah Thompson, Kristine Madsen and Maya Zamek from the University of California, Berkeley, Thomas McKenzie from San Diego State University and David Dzewaltowski from the University of Nebraska Medical Center. The research was funded by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, Grant 1K01HL151805.
CalFresh Healthy Living (CFHL), UCCE Kern County aims to improve health in farm working families by encouraging healthy eating and physical activity. As a result of a partnership with Head Start centers serving migrant communities, youth completed over 140 hours of physical activity and 92% of adult family members intended to use nutrition facts when shopping.
According to County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, Kern County is ranked among the least healthy counties in California in terms of length and quality of life and a significant portion of residents have one or more risk factors that threaten their longevity and quality of life. For instance, 34% of adults are either overweight or obese, 35% of residents are physically inactive, and 23% are food insecure.
Children and adults with these risk factors are more likely to develop chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes.
How UC Delivers
In order to work with residents on early healthy start interventions, CFHL, UCCE Kern County partnered with Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo (CAPSLO), which has five migrant Head Start centers in Kern County. CAPSLO provides no-cost childcare and preschool services to low-income families whose primary occupation is agricultural production and harvesting in the Arvin, Lamont/Weedpatch, Wasco, and Delano communities.
CFHL, UCCE Kern has conducted evening adult nutrition education at the centers.
- 94 parents received evidence based lessons from Plan, Shop, Save, and Cook (PSSC) and Healthy, Happy Families.
- Parents learned how to read the nutrition facts label, save money on food and how to start healthy habits with their children. Parents also learned how to incorporate physical activity in their everyday family routine. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (2018)recommends moderate-to-vigorous physical activity to reduce the risk of many chronic diseases among children and adults.
In order to impact families CFHL, UCCE Kern provided CAPSLO teachers with four hour training on Coordinated Approach to Child Health Early Childhood Education (CATCH ECE). CATCH ECE provides children with skill development exercises to develop locomotor, non-locomotor, manipulative skills and nurture their love for physical activity through games and activities. Teachers conducted CATCH 2-4 days per week for 30 minutes.
Seventeen parents who received the PSSC lesson on understanding food labels completed an “Intent to Change” survey. Results of the survey include:
- Of the 12 respondents who did not use the “Nutrition Facts” label prior to the lesson, 92% reported that they will use the nutrition facts on the food label to choose foods the next time they go shopping.
- A parent shared how the workshop helped her family and that they are “eating better and know how to choose foods with better nutrition.”
From August to October 2022, 130 children participated in 143 hours of physical activity through CATCH ECE lessons delivered by 15 teachers at CAPSLO's centers. Research shows that regular moderate-to-vigorous physical activity reduces the risk of many chronic diseases among children and adults.
“All my children enjoy the CATCH activities. The CATCH program is fun and beneficial,” one teacher shared. The Center Director said “I really like how teachers and children are physically active with CATCH. The nutrition sessions given to the parents also makes it more impactful for the whole family.”
By motivating and teaching CFHL participants to adopt healthier lifestyle practices, and training ECE teachers to support physical activity, CFHL, UCCE Kern helps create healthier families and communities.