UC Food Blog
Universal school meals increased student participation, lessened stigma
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated food and nutrition challenges. Many families initially lost access to meals offered by school and childcare facilities, experienced unemployment or work reductions, and faced increasing prices for food and other necessities. National and state policies and programs provided food and cash assistance to mitigate impacts on food security. Researchers at the Nutrition Policy Institute, a research center of University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, evaluated safety-net policies implemented during the pandemic to better support families with low incomes in the U.S.
Benefits of universal school meals
The National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program meet the nutritional needs of approximately 30 million K-12 students in America each day. Typically, students from families meeting income eligibility criteria receive school meals for free or a reduced price, while others pay full price.
NPI researchers Wendi Gosliner, project scientist, and Lorrene Ritchie, director and UC Cooperative Extension specialist, are co-leading studies of school meals in California in collaboration with researchers from the NOURISH Lab for Health Inclusion Research and Practice, who study school meals in Maine and other states.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress funded school meals for all students at no charge, in order to address the dramatic increase in food insecurity among families with children after schools shut down in March 2020. This federal provision allowing for meals to be free for all students ended after the 2021-2022 school year, but some states elected to continue providing universal school meals with state funding, in recognition of the importance of these meals for student health and academic success.
California was the first state to adopt a statewide Universal Meals Program starting in the 2022-23 school year. To support the program's development, $650 million were invested to help schools improve kitchen infrastructure and provide staff training and technical assistance. Investments include Farm to School programs and other mechanisms to help update and improve school meals. Maine and several other states also have adopted universal school meals at least through the 2022-23 school year.
“States often act as incubators – things that work well in states sometimes get translated into federal policy,” Gosliner said. Identifying the success of the programs – and their challenges – can lead to improvements and help inform advocates and policymakers considering universal school meals policies at the state and national level.
Two of the team's research studies in California and Maine documented the benefits and challenges of universal school meals, as reported by school food authorities. Among 581 school food-service leaders in California who responded to the survey, nearly half (45.7%) reported reductions in student stigma as a result of providing free school meals to all students. Among 43 respondents in Maine, over half (51%) reported lessened stigma related to school meals being free for all. In both studies, nearly three-quarters of respondents reported increases in student meal participation. These and other data suggest that universal school meals are meeting their aim, to increase student participation while providing nutritionally balanced meals.
But when the child leaves campus, the responsibility to put a nutritious meal on the table falls on the caregiver.
“Universal school meals provide food and can ease families' budgets, but for too many families, wages as well as time and other resources are not adequate for access to and consumption of enough healthy foods and beverages,” Gosliner noted.
That is when other public programs are helpful, for example the Earned Income Tax Credit, or EITC.
Many eligible families do not claim Earned Income Tax Credit
The Earned Income Tax Credit is a national program designed to lift families out of poverty. The supplemental income can contribute up to nearly $7,000 per year for a family. Despite the EITC's known ability to improve participants' health, research shows that many EITC-eligible households in California and across the nation don't receive the benefits for which they are eligible, leaving $2 billion unclaimed in California in 2018 alone.
Gosliner led a study along with Lia Fernald from UC Berkeley and Rita Hamad from UC San Francisco to document levels of awareness, barriers to uptake, and benefits of participation in the EITC. Their recent publication reported that among 411 EITC-eligible California female caregivers, those who were younger, spoke languages other than English, and had less awareness of the EITC were less likely to receive the tax credit.
Developing a user-friendly system for providing safety-net support and, in the meantime, providing information and support to help more EITC-eligible families receive these benefits are suggested to help alleviate financial stressors. In the long term, these strategies may reduce poverty and improve the health of children.
Increasing WIC Cash Value Benefit a boon to health
In addition to universal school meals and EITC, families with low income may be eligible for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC. The program supports women and children up to 5 years old through nutrition education, nutritious foods and access to other health and social services.
One component of the WIC food packages, the Cash Value Benefit, provides participants a fixed dollar amount to supplement their family's diet with fruits and vegetables. During the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture increased this benefit from $9 to $35 per month, which was later revised to $24 per month per child in October 2021.
Ritchie contributed to a growing body of evidence on the importance and multidimensional benefits of the WIC Cash Value Benefit increase.
“Nine dollars buys only a quarter of what a child is recommended to eat every day,” Ritchie said. “The increase in Cash Value Benefit during the pandemic was an ideal natural experiment to investigate its impact.”
In collaboration with Shannon Whaley and her team at the Public Health Foundation Enterprises-WIC, NPI launched a longitudinal cohort study of nearly 2,000 California WIC participants. They found that the increased Cash Value Benefit improved WIC participant satisfaction with the program and allowed families to purchase greater quantities and varieties of fruits and vegetables.
“The increased Cash Value Benefit enabled WIC families to expose young children to new fruits and vegetables. Early exposure to a variety of fruits and vegetables is critical to establishing lifelong healthy habits,” said Ritchie.
The researchers found that the benefit increase also reduced food insecurity. It is hoped that the increase in program satisfaction translates into more eligible families enrolling and continuing to receive WIC. In November 2022, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed making the increased Cash Value Benefit a permanent part of WIC.
Knowing the proven benefits of the WIC program, Ritchie and colleagues from the National WIC Association, and Loan Kim at Pepperdine University, also engaged with WIC participants in other states.
In 2021, all state WIC agencies were invited to participate in a WIC satisfaction survey. Of the 12 WIC state agencies that opted to participate, Connecticut, Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Nevada, New Hampshire and New Mexico added questions on the survey to understand how the increased Cash Value Benefit impacted children's dietary intake.
The study showed consumption of fruits and vegetables by children on WIC increased by one-third cup per day on average, which is sizable when considering the impact across the WIC population.
NPI research on universal school meals, the EITC and WIC constitute a small part of a more comprehensive approach to make healthy food more accessible, affordable, equitable and sustainable for all. The NPI provides resources such as policy briefs, peer-reviewed publications and technical assistance on several research areas such as safe drinking water, childcare and education. To learn more, please visit the Nutrition Policy Institute website.
Can food banks better promote nutrition and health?
New tool helps assess policies and practices
An estimated 53 million people in the U.S. turned to food banks and community programs for help putting food on the table in 2021. In recent decades, food banks have adopted policies and practices to make sure people not only have access to food but also healthy and nutritious food.
But until now, food banks have had few ways to evaluate those initiatives.
University of California, Davis, Assistant Professor of Cooperative Extension Cassandra Nguyen led a team of researchers to develop the Food Bank Health and Nutrition Assessment to address that concern. Their findings were published in the journal Public Health Nutrition.
“This tool will allow food banks to reflect on their current practices and determine whether they can adopt additional strategies to promote nutrition and health. It also serves as a benchmark, which they can use to track their progress over time,” said Nguyen, with the UC Davis Department of Nutrition.
Nutrition policy is more than what's on the shelf
Food banks face some common challenges in promoting nutrition, health and equity. While food banks could assess the nutritional quality of their inventory, Nguyen said promoting nutrition requires more than knowing the types of food on the shelf.
“Food banks can have nutrition policies that outline where they source food and which foods they prioritize when funding is available. They can also ensure that food pantry clients are either represented on advisory boards or are able to provide feedback about foods they would like to receive,” Nguyen said.
Additionally, food banks can take steps to make sure nutrition education materials and information about federal assistance programs for health and nutrition are available in languages spoken by recipients.
Partnerships with outside organizations and local farmers can also increase the variety and availability of nutritious foods. Food banks with diverse connections may also adapt better to unexpected spikes in need, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Food Bank Health and Nutrition Assessment was designed to evaluate these and additional objectives so food banks can identify areas of success as well as potential strategies they hadn't considered before.
Importance of data
“By having data from this assessment to show that some practices to promote nutrition and health may be difficult to implement, several food banks can raise their voices to advocate for policy changes,” Nguyen said.
Food banks with Feeding America and the Midwest Food Bank in four Midwestern states participated in the initial development of the Food Bank Health and Nutrition Assessment. In this small initial sample, most food banks asked food recipients about their preferences or whether diet-related diseases (for example, diabetes) were common, but few had current or former charitable food recipients on advisory boards.
The assessment is available for free through Feeding America, the largest nonprofit organization supporting the charitable food system, and online through the University of Illinois Extension. Food bank staff and partnering community-based professionals such as extension staff can use the assessment to improve promotion of nutrition and health.
Other authors include Caitlin Kownacki, Veronica Skaradzinski, Kaitlyn Streitmatter, Stephanie Acevedo and Jennifer McCaffrey with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Stephen D. Ericson with Feeding Illinois; and Jessica E. Hager with Feeding America.
Funding for the research was supported by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education, or SNAP-Ed, in Illinois
Richard Smith retires after 37 years of translating science into solutions for vegetable growers
For four decades, when a new plant disease infects fields of lettuce or a new regulation is issued for agriculture, vegetable farmers across the state have turned to Richard Smith, the University of California Cooperative Extension vegetable crops advisor, for answers. After 37 years of service with UCCE, Smith retired on Jan. 4.
“The whole industry has been dreading Richard's retirement!” exclaimed Jennifer Clarke, executive director of the California Leafy Greens Research Program. “Richard is a wealth of knowledge and has a great ability to translate science into real-world practical solutions.”
In the past few years, the leafy greens industry has lost millions of dollars of crops due to infections of impatiens necrotic spot virus (INSV) and Pythium wilt. Smith is among the researchers investigating the diseases.
“Richard has conducted important variety trials and led efforts in identifying the ‘top 10' weed hosts for INSV and strategies to reduce the wintertime ‘green bridge' for this virus,” Clarke said.
Smith also has kept policymakers informed of the latest research. In 2021, he testified before the Assembly Committee on Agriculture about leafy green plant diseases.
A legacy of practical advice, service to community
By serving on numerous grower and county committees and working directly with growers, Smith has built a reputation for understanding growers' needs and developing practical solutions. He has found it rewarding to see his research results used.
“The research that I have conducted with my collaborators has helped the water board to better fit their regulations to the reality of farming and to minimize the economic constraints,” Smith said.
Smith and his colleague Michael Cahn, UCCE irrigation and water resources advisor, also have become trusted and respected voices when discussing AgOrder 4.0 with the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, according to Clarke. AgOrder 4.0 calls for farmers to reduce the amount of fertilizer they apply to crops.
Field trials conducted by Smith and Cahn showed growers they could use nitrogen from high nitrate wells toward meeting a crop's nutritional needs.
“Richard has also done important research to develop nitrogen removal coefficients for AgOrder 4.0,” Clarke said. “Recently he and Eric Brennan of USDA-ARS (Agricultural Research Service) looked at cover crops and identified a system to predict shoot biomass and allow for nitrogen scavenging credits. His work has been pivotal in helping growers comply with AgOrder 4.0 in a cost-effective and realistic manner.”
Growers also use his research to manage cadmium, a heavy metal that is naturally present in soils.
“He led the effort to help growers find a best management practice that reduces cadmium uptake in various crops,” Clarke said. “The Central Coast has areas of productive agricultural land where there are naturally occurring shale deposits. The ability to amend soil to reduce plant uptake of this heavy metal has allowed these important production areas to continue to farm nutritious vegetables.”
‘Never had a bad day as a farm advisor'
Growing up in Watsonville, Smith began working at a young age in agriculture for summer jobs.
“I was in 4-H and got to know ag advisors and was always impressed by them,” Smith said. “I was fortunate to be able to work as an advisor for my career. I never had a bad day as a farm advisor – it was very satisfying working with growers and helping them with their issues.”
Smith joined UC Cooperative Extension as a farm advisor intern in San Diego County and San Joaquin County in 1985 after earning his master's degree in agronomy from UC Davis. In 1986, he moved to the Central Valley to serve as an interim farm advisor for San Joaquin County, then became a vegetable crops farm advisor for Stanislaus County in 1987.
In 1989, Smith moved to the Central Coast to serve as UCCE small farms advisor for San Benito, Monterey and Santa Cruz counties. In 1999, he transitioned to UCCE vegetable crops and weed science farm advisor for those three counties, where he served for the rest of his career.
Mentoring the next generation of scientists
“Richard was my mentor, principal investigator on my first collaborative study at ANR, speaker at several of my extension events, and a dear colleague,” said Surendra Dara, former UCCE entomology and biologicals advisor and now director of Oregon State University's North Willamette Research & Extension Center and professor of horticulture. “He is very kind, friendly, and most importantly has a good sense of humor. He is well-regarded both by his peers and stakeholders.”
Smith has been active in professional organizations, regularly attending the annual meetings of the American Society for Horticulture Science and the American Society of Agronomy. He served as president of the California Chapter of the American Society of Agronomy in 2014 and served on the board of the California Weed Science Society, which granted him the Award of Excellence in 2005 and an honorary membership in 2020.
As a public service, Smith served on the board of the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association, and taught classes and conducted outreach to their Spanish-speaking clientele. He was a regular guest speaker for vegetable crop and weed science classes at CSU Fresno, CSU Monterey Bay, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Hartnell Community College and Cabrillo Community College.
As he winds down his career, Smith has been mentoring new UCCE farm advisors and scientists who have joined USDA-Agricultural Research Service in Salinas and California State University, Monterey Bay, acquainting them with local issues.
“Richard's leadership and mentorship has been critical in the development of my career as a new researcher at USDA-ARS in Salinas,” said Daniel K. Hasegawa, research entomologist in USDA-ARS's Crop Improvement and Protection Research Unit. “Richard has taught me so much about agricultural practices in the Salinas Valley and has connected me with growers and pest control advisers, which has enhanced the impact of my own research, which includes projects addressing thrips and INSV.”
Smith, who has been granted emeritus status by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, plans to complete nitrogen research projects that are underway.
Are California soda taxes effective?
Study finds that the taxes raise revenues, but may not decrease sales
California is home to four of the eight active soda taxes in the United States, but are these policies successfully decreasing the consumption of sugary beverages in these cities? New research out of UC Davis suggests that, in most cases, these soda taxes did not reduce retail sales. Further, while they successfully raised revenues to fund programs to reduce sugary beverage consumption and mitigate their negative health effects, a disproportionate amount of this revenue was generated from lower-income households.
With over $2 trillion in annual worldwide health-care costs resulting from the obesity epidemic, many municipalities are searching for ways to reduce its adverse effects on their citizens and economies. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (e.g., sodas) to reduce the consumption of sugary beverages and prevent obesity-associated diseases. To assess whether this approach has been successful at a local level in California, UC Davis economists analyzed the price and sales effects of a one-cent-per-fluid-ounce sales tax on sugar-sweetened beverages taxes in three Bay Area cities: Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco.
Co-author of the study Richard Sexton, distinguished professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Davis, said they found that “California soda taxes in the Bay Area communities have generally had little impact on sales of sugary beverages.”
There are a number of reasons why these taxes may not significantly affect the purchasing decisions of California consumers. Since the taxes are imposed on distributors, an important consideration is how much of the tax is actually passed along to consumers. Several factors could lead to very little of the final tax burden falling on consumers, including fixed-price contracts between distributors and retailers, and retailers' reluctance to pass forward price increases to avoid alienating consumers.
When the authors explored this “pass-through rate,” they found that, in most cases, it was fairly low. However, in the fourth and fifth years after the implementation of the Berkeley tax (home of the first U.S. soda tax), they did see pass-through rates of 45% and 77%, respectively, as well as significant reductions in retail sales on average. This may mean that it requires a longer time for these taxes to be passed forward and affect behavior. Or, it may have been influenced by the implementation of similar taxes in surrounding areas a couple of years later, suggesting that these taxes are more effective when implemented over a larger area to prevent customers from shopping outside the taxed region.
Since low-income households consume more sugar-sweetened beverages than higher-income households, they are often considered more at risk for the detrimental effects of high soda consumption. Thus, the authors also wanted to assess whether there was a difference in how these taxes affected the price and volume of sales in low-, middle-, and high-income neighborhoods.
Kristin Kiesel, who also serves as the co-director of the Diversity and Inclusion in Research, Education, and Career Training (DIRECT) program, noted that “California's soda taxes appear to hit low-income consumers the hardest. There is little evidence that lower-income households have reduced purchases of sugary beverages in response to these taxes, meaning they are bearing the burden of the portion of the tax passed forward to retail without gaining health benefits.”
To learn more about how sugar-sweetened beverage taxes have impacted California consumers, read the full article “How Well Are California's Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Taxes Working?” by Lang, Kiesel and Sexton, published by UC Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics in ARE Update 26(3): 1–4, free online at https://giannini.ucop.edu/filer/file/1676490133/20606.
ARE Update is a bimonthly magazine published by the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics to educate policymakers and agribusiness professionals about new research or analysis of important topics in agricultural and resource economics. Articles are written by Giannini Foundation members, including University of California faculty and Cooperative Extension specialists in agricultural and resource economics, and university graduate students. Learn more about the Giannini Foundation and its publications at https://giannini.ucop.edu.
New UCCE advisors bring fresh ideas to protect lettuce from INSV, Pythium wilt
Salinas Valley lettuce growers lost about $150 million in 2022 due to diseases
A stormy winter could portend another devastating year for the lettuce industry in the Salinas Valley, which saw approximately $150 million in lost gross revenue in 2022 due to INSV (impatiens necrotic spot virus) and associated diseases. Recent drenching rains might mean more weeds – overwintering “reservoirs” for the tiny insect, the Western flower thrips, that carries INSV.
Or the extreme precipitation could benefit growers, as thrips in the soil – during their intermediate stage of development – might be drowned in the waterlogged fields.
As with so many aspects of the INSV crisis, the ultimate effects of flooded fields on thrips populations remain unknown.
“We don't know if thrips are just so persistent and so stable in that pupal stage that maybe they will emerge unaffected,” said Kirsten Pearsons, University of California Cooperative Extension integrated pest management farm advisor for Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties. “There's just so much about their biology and ecology in the Salinas Valley that we just don't know.”
The mystery of thrips, INSV and soilborne diseases (namely Pythium wilt) is why UC Agriculture and Natural Resources assigned Pearsons to the area last November and hired Yu-Chen Wang in October as UCCE plant pathology advisor for the three counties.
“They're stepping in at a critical moment,” said Richard Smith, the region's UCCE vegetable crop production and weed science advisor who retired in January after a 37-year career. “They've gotten grants funded already – and that's just incredible. They're hitting the ground running.”
Experienced in disease diagnosis and collaboration with growers and industry partners, Wang said her pathology background – paired with Pearsons' entomology expertise – will be crucial in addressing INSV and other diseases.
“It is important for Kirsten and me to work together and provide different insights for the vector and the pathogen, respectively,” Wang said.
‘It's going to take everything to get a crop'
One priority is untangling the dynamics of INSV and Pythium wilt co-occurrence – the subject of ongoing research by JP Dundore-Arias, a plant pathologist at California State University, Monterey Bay. While the vegetables may tolerate one disease or the other, their one-two punch often deals the lethal blow.
“The challenge is – which is why it's great to have Yu-Chen and Kirsten – is that we have so many problems now, whether it's Fusarium (wilt), or Verticillium (wilt), or Pythium, or INSV,” said Mark Mason, pest control adviser for Nature's Reward, which primarily grows lettuces on 5,000 acres across the Salinas Valley.
Mason said that co-infections on his crops (sometimes with three or four diagnosed diseases) make it difficult to assign monetary damages to a specific pathogen, but he noted he has seen fields with “100% loss.” According to the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, about 11,500 acres were deemed not harvestable in 2022, representing 12% of lettuce industry acreage.
Given the gravity and complexity of the disease dilemma, Pearsons said she has been fielding calls from growers seeking new and better solutions – ways to improve existing tools, techniques borrowed from other crop systems, and additional biological or chemical means of control.
And although there are a couple of pesticides that manage the disease-carrying thrips reasonably well, growers and researchers are worried about their diminishing efficacy due to overuse. Plus, they only constitute a short-term fix.
“Managing the thrips will only reduce the amount of INSV that can get transmitted,” Pearsons explained. “You can kill 99.9% of the thrips, but you get one thrips that has INSV that enters a field, and now you have an infected lettuce plant. All of the thrips are going to come and they can spread it from there; pesticide slows things down, but it's not going to eliminate it.”
Finding disease-tolerant lettuce cultivars is a more sustainable approach. Trials conducted last year by Smith, Wang and others identified several varieties that appeared to hold up well to Pythium and INSV. While additional research could maximize their potential benefit, Wang said even the hardier cultivars will lose their resistance over time, and a multi-layered INSV strategy with “integrated management tools” is crucial.
“We realized, when this thing started happening, that we cannot spray our way out of this problem,” Mason said. “We need varieties; we need management practices; we need pesticides…it just seems like it's going to take everything to get a crop.”
Weeds key to disease control
An all-hands-on-deck approach helped control thrips-harboring weeds last winter. With fields drying out from January storms, Smith said communities must get back to weed management – with a focus on prominent weed hosts for INSV and neglected areas adjacent to farms. Hotspots of infection last year were traced to industrial lots that were overlooked during the weeding process.
“People can't lose sight of the fact that we still need to be controlling the weeds in key areas, because that's the reservoir of the virus during the winter,” Smith said. “We have to stay on task with that.”
Yet despite the diligent weed abatement, crop damage from INSV and Pythium was widespread in 2022, and Smith said it's “very possible” that high heat during the summer was a contributing factor to especially prevalent disease in fall. Thrips populations tend to thrive in warmer weather, Smith said, but much more research needs to be done to understand the basic biology of the insect, including how they acquire the virus and how they spread it.
High hopes for future
Pearsons cited the work of Daniel Hasegawa, a research entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who leads teams in monitoring thrips populations in several locations across the Salinas Valley. Currently the counting of thrips on sticky card traps is done manually, but Pearsons and Mason mentioned the possibility of using AI and machine learning to expedite that process.
Mason said that the grower community is excited about the new technologies and ideas that Pearsons and Wang are bringing to the region. As a participant in the search for candidates to fill the advisor positions, Mason said “they were, in my opinion, by far the best fit for what we were looking for.”
“I hope they stay here for 30 years,” he added.
The new advisors both noted the palpable energy and cooperative spirit in the Salinas Valley to proactively meet the challenge.
“Looking to the past, there have been other outbreaks and diseases that they've managed to overcome,” Pearsons said. “These farmers are resilient and creative and I fully believe that lettuce will still be growing here for years to come – it might look a little different, and it might take a little bit of a painful period to get to that point, but I think that we're going to be able to come up with some solutions.”
And while there are concerns that some lettuce growers might decide to leave the region, Wang said she also believes in the industry's strong roots and rich history.
“Salinas Valley has had a beautiful climate for lettuce for so many years; there are some undeniable advantages here,” she said. “This is still the best place in the United States – and maybe the world – to grow lettuce.”/h3>/h3>/h3>/h3>