- Author: Brianna Aguayo Villalon
- Editor: suzanne rauzon
- Editor: Ron Strochlic
The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—known as SNAP nationally and CalFresh in California—provides food benefits to over 22 million low-income families in the US to supplement their grocery budget. New Nutrition Policy Institute (NPI) research demonstrates that sending encouraging text messages to SNAP participants helps promote nutrition resources and stimulate positive feelings about the program. NPI researchers collaborated with the University of California, San Diego, Center for Community Health, to partner with the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency to send 5 monthly behavioral science-informed nutrition text messages to approximately 170,000 CalFresh participants. The text messages were sent in English and Spanish and provided information about the benefits of buying and consuming California-grown fruits and vegetables. Each text-message included a link to a website which provided information about selecting, storing, and preparing fruits and vegetables, and budget-friendly recipes. Results highlighted that participants gained better knowledge on these subjects, as well as feeling good about participating in CalFresh and appreciating the program's efforts to help participants eat healthfully. Survey results demonstrated that 90% of respondents appreciated the text-messages. This research brief demonstrates that further communication efforts through text-messages from SNAP agencies can help program participants eat more healthfully and improve their views on SNAP. The brief was developed by NPI researchers Celeste Felix, Ron Strochlic and Wendi Gosliner and Sena Karvas from the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health.
- Author: Brianna Aguayo Villalon
- Editor: lauren au
A recent study found that higher infant diet quality scores observed in Hispanic Spanish-speaking participants account for certain racial and ethnic variations in later diet quality, suggesting that enhancing infant nutrition could mitigate early childhood diet disparities. Researchers focused on data from participants in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, to analyze nutritional practices based on racial and ethnic differences among young children. The researchers found that infant diet quality among Hispanic Spanish-speaking families accounted for 25% of later diet disparities based on racial and ethnic differences. The study was published in The Journal of Nutrition, including authors Lauren Au, Charles Arnold, and Sarina Lin from the University of California, Davis, Department of Nutrition, Lorrene Ritchie from the Nutrition Policy Institute, and Edward Frongillio from the University of South Carolina, Department of Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior.
Nearly 40% of community college students experience food insecurity and may skip meals because they can't afford to eat. The Nutrition Policy Institute, along with the University of California and UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, endorsed the Food for Thought Act, bicameral legislation that would bring free meal programs to community college campuses and minority serving institutions—helping address food insecurity for students at those institutions. The Food for Thought Act will also provide funding to conduct campus outreach and provide information to participating students on eligibility for federal food assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and collect data on food insecurity on campuses to expand anti-hunger programming. Grant funding can also be used to update much needed food infrastructure on campus that students can use and build food pantries and community gardens on campus. The Food For Thought Act was introduced by Representative Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and joined by Representative Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.), and Senators Peter Welch (D-Vt.), and Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) on July 20, 2023. The legislation has numerous co-sponsors in both the House and Senate and endorsements from experts in food insecurity and higher education.
- 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>
The California Nutrition Incentive Program, the GusNIP in California, provides CalFresh, known nationally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, shoppers with a dollar-for-dollar match when using their EBT card to purchase California-grown fruits and vegetables at participating farmers markets. The program recently expanded in pilot form to a few grocery stores. A new evaluation report presents detailed findings from interviews conducted by University of California Nutrition Policy Institute researchers with CalFresh shoppers from a sample of farmers' markets and other retail outlets newly implementing CNIP. Researchers explored CalFresh shoppers' experiences using CNIP; CNIP's impact on CalFresh shoppers' food purchasing decisions; and CalFresh shoppers' general feelings about the program. As one participant said, “I would say that this is probably one of the most important things that [policy makers] can do as far as helping to bring access to lower income people to fresh fruits and vegetables.” In summary, CalFresh shoppers across different market types (farmers markets and grocery stores) had positive experiences with CNIP. Participants described the program as helpful, noting that CNIP allowed them to buy more fruits and vegetables, purchase more CA-grown and organic fruits and vegetables and widen their selection of fresh produce. Participants from all market types were supportive of the program continuing and expanding to grocery stores as a means of increasing access to fruits and vegetables for CalFresh participants.