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Food for Thought

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NATIONWIDE, MORE THAN 42 MILLION PEOPLE live in households that are food-insecure — defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” Recent studies indicate that the prevalence of food insecurity is higher among college students compared to the general population, including at the University of California (UC) — illustrating the need to ensure that a UC education is affordable to all students through efforts to keep the amount of tuition paid by students down and increase financial aid, both of which are top priorities for UCLA and the Fielding School.

In addition to those efforts, two FSPH students are looking inward as leaders in a UCLA and UC-wide effort to examine obstacles many college students face to eating well. Tyler Watson (MPH ’13), a doctoral candidate in FSPH’s environmental health sciences department, is working alongside Hannah Malan (MS ’16), a first-year doctoral student in community health sciences, to better understand why many students struggle with food. “We have this societal norm of the starving college student that’s widely accepted, but college should be a time of learning, personal growth, and skills development,” Watson says. “We want to make it a time when students can learn life skills, such as cooking and budgeting, that can protect and promote lifelong health.”

Watson and Malan conducted a series of 11 focus groups with undergraduate and graduate students living in on- and off-campus housing at UCLA, the findings of which they presented to the UC Board of Regents to help guide solutions for food security UC-wide, and were also accepted for publication in California Agriculture. The FSPH students emphasize the need for programs and curricula on UC campuses to improve food access and literacy, as well as pointing to a variety of barriers to students eating healthy, including affordability and food skills. Many students in the study reported choosing cheap, nutrient-poor foods and some students experienced stress around accessing healthy food due to resource limitations. “Students consistently said they wanted more support from the university with learning to manage their resources and prepare healthy, inexpensive food,” says Malan, whose research focuses on understanding how students learn about food and identifying approaches that empower them to plan, select, prepare and eat food in a healthful and enjoyable way. “It’s more than just nutrition education; it’s giving students the skills they need to put their knowledge into practice.”

As graduate student researchers with UCLA’s Healthy Campus Initiative (HCI) — envisioned and supported by philanthropists Jane and Terry Semel — Watson and Malan are helping to lead the effort to make UCLA the nation’s healthiest campus. Through HCI’s EatWell working group, they have used the results of their research to inform how best to allocate resources and create programs to improve students’ wellbeing. One example is a partnership forged with Food Forward, a local nonprofit that recovers fresh fruits and vegetables that would otherwise be discarded. Watson and a team of student volunteers, including undergraduate student Savannah Gardner, have delivered more than 20,000 pounds of farmers market produce to students on a weekly basis since the partnership began in November 2016. Cooking demonstrations held by student groups such as FSPH’s Public Health Nutrition Club ensure that students know how to prepare the food they’ve received. It is one of the many ways Watson is helping to combat both hunger and food waste — work that earned him recognition in 2016 as one of three students honored with the UC President’s Award for Outstanding Student Leadership.

“Tyler and Hannah’s research has helped paint a picture of the student experience,” says Dr. Wendelin M. Slusser, associate vice-provost of HCI and an adjunct professor in FSPH’s Department of Community Health Sciences and clinical professor in UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. “Based on the evolution of work we’ve done at UCLA through the Healthy Campus Initiative, we are now getting all of UC’s campuses to focus on food efforts through the University of California Global Food Initiative.”

Launched in 2014, the UC Global Food Initiative (GFI) is addressing how to sustainably and nutritiously feed a growing world population by starting with UC’s 10 campuses. Watson and Malan were among 10 UCLA students selected as GFI fellows for the 2016-17 academic year. At UCLA, Watson helps facilitate a campus food-security working group to identify best practices and strategies that will be shared across the UC system, and ultimately with schools and communities nationwide. With funding from the UC Office of the President, the group has expanded the existing UCLA-based Community Programs Office Food Closet, promoted CalFresh enrollment, and supported a meal voucher program that converts unused meal plan “swipes” collected by the nonprofit student group Swipe Out Hunger. In addition, Malan is working with the HCI to launch and evaluate a Teaching Kitchen Collaborative pilot program at UCLA. The program will provide hands-on cooking classes and nutrition information for graduate students in public health, dentistry, nursing and medicine.

“Our goal is that one day teaching kitchens and food literacy will become a part of the health sciences curriculum,” says Janet Leader, a registered dietitian nutritionist, lecturer and associate director of field studies in FSPH’s Department of Community Health Sciences who was appointed to lead the program’s launch in April 2017. “We hope this pilot will show how effective it can be not only to change students’ knowledge about food so they can be more healthy themselves, but also to increase future health professionals’ confidence and food literacy so that they can talk about healthy nutrition and choices to their patients or clients in the community.”