Posts Tagged: policy
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.
The buzz or chirp of an incoming text message started some San Diego County residents on the path to a healthier diet during this past year. In September 2020, most CalFresh participants in the county – more than 172,000 households – began receiving monthly text messages about the benefits of California-grown fruits and vegetables as part of a pilot program.
This novel approach to delivering nutrition messages to California food assistance program participants was developed by a partnership of the Nutrition Policy Institute of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, the UC San Diego Center for Community Health and the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency, which administers CalFresh in the county.
The HHSA, which had been using its text messaging platform to send administrative reminders and alerts, was receptive to using the tool for sending nutrition-focused information. NPI and CCH partnered with ideas42, a firm that applies behavioral science to solutions for social change, to develop a series of five text messages promoting California-grown fruits and vegetables.
The text messages – originally delivered in English and Spanish, with the addition of Arabic beginning in July 2021 – were friendly and conversational in tone.
“In a text, you have very few characters you're communicating with people, so we wanted to make sure we were using cutting-edge behavioral science to construct those messages to have the most impact,” said Wendi Gosliner, NPI senior researcher and policy advisor.
Each text included a link directing recipients to a website developed as part of the project, with information on selecting, storing and preparing California-grown fruits and vegetables; health benefits; tips to reduce food waste; and recipes – including TikTok videos.
Initially running from September 2020 to March 2021, the pilot program was well-received. Nearly 90% of CalFresh participants responding to a survey said they appreciated receiving the texts. “It is very important for us to eat healthy, to teach our children to eat healthy,” wrote one participant. “I love the recipes…they're so delicious and easy to make…I'm very, very grateful for the help because without you guys, I would be struggling more and I just want a better life for my children.”
Gosliner said it was encouraging to see that two-thirds of the approximately 5,000 survey respondents reported eating more California-grown fruits and vegetables after receiving the messages, and 85% expressed a desire to see more texts.
“What we see is that there's definitely a decent-sized population of people participating in CalFresh –now this is just in San Diego County but imagine the entire state – who would benefit from having this kind of information available to them,” Gosliner said. “And there is at least a subset of people who really liked it.”
UC San Diego's Center for Community Health was instrumental in facilitating the partnership between UC ANR and the HHSA. Further, CCH, in partnership with the San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative, formed a community council composed of residents representing diverse communities throughout San Diego County. Together, the council facilitated CalFresh participants to take part in focus groups, which provided feedback and guidance on the messaging and design for online resources. Gosliner said the success of the text program has been a direct result of community input and involvement.
“The Center for Community Health-led focus groups were integral to ensuring CalFresh resources were accessible and informative to a wide range of CalFresh participants, and local individuals and families more broadly,” said Blanca Meléndrez, executive director at the UC San Diego Center for Community and Population Health, Altman Clinical Translational Research Institute. “In the process, the text-based campaign also placed a greater focus on the local production of nutritious fruits and vegetables, ensuring access to healthy and nutritious food in all communities, and building new streams of income for the region's farmers and producers.”
This effort also suggests a simple way to reach CalFresh participants and bridge gaps between the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and programming that offers nutrition education and healthy eating resources.
“By combining UCSD and UC ANR knowledge about healthy eating with our outreach capability, we are able to reach thousands of families via text message each month,” said Michael Schmidt, human services operations manager for the HHSA. “With the click of a button, these families are provided with resources to assist them in making healthier lifestyle choices, supporting a region that is building better health, living safely and thriving.”
The effort has been so effective that HHSA has asked for additional messages, beyond the original five months' worth of texts and resources.
“The partnership between UC ANR's Nutrition Policy Institute, UC San Diego's Center for Community Health, the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency and San Diego County community residents brought together a great team to develop an innovative, technology-based intervention,” said Shana Wright, San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative co-director at CCH. “Each partner provided knowledge, resources and assets that enhanced the project beyond the initial pilot phase, exceeding preliminary expectations.”
Gosliner said the pilot program has been a “great example and wonderful experience” of partnership in action.
“You can sit with your research or program ideas for a long time but if you don't have people who can help you implement them, then they really aren't helpful in any way,” she said. “In this case, it was just a nice combination of an idea…with partners who wanted to work to make something happen.”
Drinking water safety, especially for children, has become an issue of heightened concern since the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, in 2014.
The National Drinking Water Alliance map has recently been updated to add over 235 new points linking to news reports of tap water contamination, with nearly half of the incidents emerging since 2019.
“We created the map to help community members, advocates and decision-makers visualize the tap water contamination landscape, particularly for incidents of lead that exceed state action levels,” said Christina Hecht, UC Nutrition Policy Institute senior policy advisor and National Drinking Water Alliance coordinator.
Residents can zoom in on their state to check for contamination incidents that were reported in the news. Red pins indicate lead contamination in schools and parks. Clicking on a pin on the map produces a pop-up box containing the name of the town, date and link to the news story.
“Although most tap water is safe for drinking, the number of dots on the map show that there are times and places where tap water is not safe,” Hecht said. “The only way to know if tap water has elevated lead is by testing through an accredited lab.”
The interactive map was created by the Nutrition Policy Institute and Informatics and Geographic Information System at the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources. The map only includes tap water contamination with lead and contaminants regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. For example, reports of perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, contaminating drinking water are not included because PFAS are not regulated by the EPA.
Although a few states now maintain some type of online database of results from school or childcare tests for lead in tap water, to date, there is no national database of lead exceedances in school or childcare drinking water.
The National Drinking Water Alliance map includes information on state policies and programs to test for lead in school drinking water. Almost one-third of U.S. states have enacted legislation providing policy to test for lead in drinking water in schools and, in some cases, in child-care centers. California tests for lead in drinking water at all public K-12 schools and posts the results online. Policies for mandatory testing have recently passed in Oregon and Vermont. New legislation has been proposed in Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska and Connecticut. Voluntary programs are now present in every state, funded by nationwide federal grants supporting testing in child-care facilities and schools.
More information on each state's actions can be found on the interactive map at www.drinkingwateralliance.org/new-map, which was updated by Nutrition Policy Institute intern Laurel Denyer, a recent UC Davis graduate.
For more information about drinking water safety, and to propose additions to the map, please contact the NDWA at DWAalliance@ucanr.edu.
When the Detwiler Fire broke out near his family's ranch in 2017, Tony Toso was home to take defensive action to protect his family and animals. The Mariposa County rancher feels fortunate that he was on site.
“We were on the front end of the fire damage and it started on a Sunday,” recalled Toso. “Had I not been home that day, it would have been very difficult for me to access my property and help keep our livestock safe. Within a matter of hours of the fire starting, the CHP had our county road closed and would not let anyone in.”
Emergency personnel close roads around wildfires for the safety of people and to prevent them from impeding fire suppression efforts. When fire threatens large ranching operations, ranchers need to move their livestock out of harm's way and make sure they have feed and water. While volunteer groups can assist in rescuing dogs, cats, and a few sheep or horses, they don't have a rancher's knowledge, expertise and experience that are essential for managing hundreds of cattle at large-scale ranching operations.
To help rural communities prepare for wildfire, it would be helpful for farmers and ranchers to have a plan in place to coordinate with first responders, according to Max Moritz, UC Cooperative Extension wildfire specialist. Ag Pass is a program developed in Ventura County to identify farmers and ranchers to firefighters, law enforcement and other emergency personnel so they can allow them onto their property to rescue animals and identify access roads and water sources.
“Because fires are increasingly impacting people and are not going away anytime soon, we need to figure out approaches to sustainably live on fire-prone landscapes. In a broader sense, the Ag Pass is another way that we can adapt to, and coexist with, wildfire,” Moritz said.
Matthew Shapero, UC Cooperative Extension livestock and range advisor, and Moritz have written a publication to guide people who would like to create an Ag Pass Program for wildfire preparedness in their own locale.
“Our neighbors had cattle just north of us and they tried to get in and could not,” said Toso. “An Ag Pass in that situation, would have been a huge benefit had I not been at home and then wanted to access my property.”
In Ventura County, agricultural workers can apply for identification cards from the Central Ventura County Fire Safe Council, which verifies farm information through the county's pesticide applicator permit database. Ag Pass members provide detailed maps of their farms that show access roads – including many that don't show up on other maps.
Shapero, who works in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, has been working with ranchers and county agencies to create an Ag Pass program in Santa Barbara County.
“The last few fire seasons have made a program like the Ag Pass more urgent than ever, especially as awareness of wildfire's impacts to agriculture has grown,” Shapero said. “We hope that this publication provides localities with a workable blueprint that will expedite the adoption of this or similar programs.”
Shapero has been working with Anthony Stornetta of Santa Barbara County Fire and representatives of other agencies to develop a training for Ag Pass participants in Santa Barbara County.
“After being at the Carr, Sonoma, Creek and Camp fires for months at a time, I started developing the program from the fire side and presented it to California Cattlemen's Association a couple years ago,” Stornetta. “This was a great collaborative effort. After meeting with our fire safe council, we are looking at the program being fully adopted very soon.”
In September, the Bear Fire raged through the Plumas National Forest where 400 of Dave Daley's cattle roamed to graze. The fifth-generation rancher wrote in moving detail of his grueling search for surviving cows in the rugged terrain during the wildfire and posted it to the California Cattlemen's Association website.
“I was unable to get access initially,” Daley said. “After working with our sheriff, I was able to get access through his office. But it required a deputy to take his time every day for 10 days to meet me at the roadblocks and escort me for several miles into our cattle range. I am very thankful for their willingness to do so. However, it was probably not the best use of their time when they were dealing with so many crises simultaneously and the fire was still raging. If there had been an Ag Pass system, that would have simplified the process, freed up law enforcement and given me a chance to save more cattle.”
Toso, the Mariposa County rancher and president of the California Cattlemen's Association, thinks a program as described in the UC Cooperative Extension publication benefits both ranchers and first responders.
“We can not only help protect ranching families, but we can use the opportunity to build working relationships and create trust between landowners and emergency personnel, as well as provide valuable information to those first responders from knowing the lay of the land,” he said. “Helping other counties and our member ranchers get a program on the books with their respective counties will be a priority for our organization.”
“Given each community's unique agency and personnel structure, it is our belief that the Ag Pass is best administered at the local or county level, however we are working with the state to see if policy measures can be developed that would simplify and support the Ag Pass concept,” Shapero said.
The training developed for Santa Barbara County includes an overview of hazards and safety issues, entrapment avoidance, incident organization, fire behavior, working with law and fire liaisons, access to incident, carding and certification. Stornetta anticipates the Santa Barbara County training will be held in spring 2021 and hopes it can be used in other counties as well. Ranchers who are interested in the Ag Pass training should contact Stornetta or Shapero.
“Preparing for Disaster: Establishing an Ag Pass Program in Your Community,” can be downloaded for free at https://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/8685.pdf.
(First published Dec. 21, 2020)
University leaders, faculty and students from across the U.S. and around the world are working together to tackle a complex set of challenges that prevent millions of people from getting enough of the right foods. In March 2021, UC Davis, the UC Global Food Initiative and the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Nutrition Policy Institute, in partnership with the Hunger Solutions Institute at Auburn University, hosted a summit for members of Universities Fighting World Hunger, where more than 500 attendees from 22 countries sought solutions to the tragedy of world hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition that results in chronic diseases and obesity.
The 16th annual summit, held virtually for the second time, introduced a new way to address hunger by focusing on its connections to global climate change and the catastrophic COVID-19 pandemic.
Opening keynote speaker Bill Dietz, director of the Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness at George Washington University, called the multiple threats to human well-being a “syndemic” driven by political power, capitalism, social norms and structural racism.
He suggested triple-duty solutions to the syndemic. For example, for U.S. populations, increasing plant-based foods and reducing beef consumption leads to (1) healthier diets that reduce obesity, diabetes and cancer; (2) improves nutritional quality and food security; and (3) lowers greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and cattle production.
“I don't mean to say we eliminate beef,” Dietz said. “Beef can be healthy if grass fed and contains micronutrients. We need to reduce it. I don't pretend that's an easy lift. There is resistance at the highest levels of government. But we need to generate the political will to turn that around.”
Dietz recommended the development of local and regional food systems for food resilience, health, equity and environmental sustainability. Regional systems are more agile and not devoted to monoculture, such as that found in the U.S. Midwest where great swaths of land are managed exclusively for corn production.
“The question is not what we need to do, but how to do it,” Dietz said. “We need to act now. We need to build political will. We need to hold leaders accountable.”
A new Green Revolution
On the world stage, increasing access to food must address poverty, inequality, wars and politics, said Rattan Lal, distinguished professor of soil science at Ohio State University.
The projections that the earth will have 2 billion more residents by 2050 means there's a need for a new “Green Revolution,” Lal said. In the 1950s, fears that food production was lagging behind population growth were rampant. The fears were not realized due to the mid-century Green Revolution, in which research and technology boosted agricultural production worldwide with advances in variety selection, irrigation, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Yields rose exponentially.
“This miracle saved hundreds of millions from starvation,” Lal said. “Despite all that progress, there is still hunger.”
To meet food demand anticipated in 2050, the new Green Revolution must be different.
“Rather than input based, it must be natural resources based,” Lal said. “The strategy is to produce more food from less land, less water, less fertilizers and less energy.”
Managing agricultural land with regenerative principles – such as maintaining year-round soil cover, eliminating tillage and applying integrated nutrient management – leads to healthy, sustainable and productive soils that lock up carbon and minimize greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere.
“Something I hope to see protected in the new Farm Bill – the rights of soil,” Lal said. “Soil is a living entity. It has rights. We have a Clean Air Act, a Clean Water Act. It is time for a Healthy Soil Act. I hope it will be in 2022 or 2023. That involves policy translating science to action.”
The benefits of soil health are research-proven, but not yet widely implemented on farmland around the world, an example of a dichotomy shared by summit keynote speaker Jeffrey Sachs, an economist with the Center for Sustainable Development. He quoted the well-known observation of science fiction writer William Gibson, “The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed.”
“There are solutions. I call them pathways. They are not gimmicks,” Sachs said. “Our work is to build the public understanding and awareness of the importance of these pathways.”
Sachs encouraged summit attendees to advocate locally and at the state and federal levels to promote new food systems approaches.
“Write blogs, op-eds and suggestions. What can corporations commit to? What should governments commit to? What can the food industry commit to?” Sachs said. “A lot of agricultural policies promoted by large commercial interests neglect environmental objectives. What we need is a one-world approach to move beyond the narrow view of a powerful corporate lobby and move to ecosystem sustainability in agriculture, carbon storage, healthful diets and a culture of appreciation of agriculture and healthful food.”
A role for land grant universities
Lorrene Ritchie, director of UC's Nutrition Policy Institute, said she believes UC Agriculture and Natural Resources and other land grant institutions can help direct humanity along a pathway of human and planet health.
“We have nutrition programs, dairy and beef research, irrigation, pest control, production, and natural resources expertise, and are well positioned to work together,” Ritchie said. “As a nutrition researcher, I can bring expertise on human dietary needs, while others can identify the crops that are most environmentally sustainable in different ecosystems. How we can get the best nutrition with the smallest environmental impact is the key question to address.”
Consumers can also help protect the planet's health with information to make educated decisions about their food choices.
“I would like to see food labeling not only for nutrition, but also on the product's sustainability,” she said.
Impacts from food on the planet's health involve production, water use, transportation, packaging and other factors.
“It kind of makes you dizzy to think about balancing impacts to human health and planet health. At UC ANR, we have the expertise and we can contribute to making progress in California and beyond in that regard. Complex problems will require multiple solutions – the time to act is now,” Ritchie said.