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Research for healthy food, people and places

The Nutrition Policy Institute (NPI) envisions a world in which healthy food, beverages and opportunities for physical activity are accessible, affordable, equitable and sustainable for everyone.

NPI's mission is to conduct and translate policy-relevant research to transform environments for healthy children, families and communities.

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  • Students perceive that Universal School Meals reduce stigma, promote food security, simplify payments and increase participation

    Jul 15, 2024

    A recently published study reveals that California students appreciate Universal School Meals, reporting that having meals free of charge for all students made school meals more accessible, reduced stigma, improved food security, and streamlined the process for receiving meals. Prompted by the rise in food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2020-2022 the USDA implemented an unprecedented change allowing schools to serve meals free of charge to all students regardless of household income.  For many students, school meals are their primary source of nutritious food. This qualitative study, conducted in 9 different regions in California, interviewed 67 middle and high school students, representative of the demographic profile of students in the state, about their experiences with Universal School Meals during the pandemic. Students expressed widespread appreciation for the program and a desire for its continuation. Students of different backgrounds agreed that the program supported food security by relieving the financial burden on families during an economically hard time. This was achieved through easier access to school meals by eliminating income barriers and the eligibility process. Universal School Meals also reduced the stigma faced by those who receive free or reduced-price school meals by including everyone in the program. There is still room for improvement, as students expressed concern about the quality and quantity of food served during the pandemic and perceived greater food waste. California was the first state to commit to continuing Universal School Meals beyond the 2021-2022 school year. This study was published online in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior co-authored by Dania Orta-Aleman, Monica Zuercher, Kassandra Bacon, Carolyn Chelius, Christina Hecht, Ken Hecht, Lorrene Ritchie, and Wendi Gosliner of the Nutrition Policy Institute and Juliana Cohen of Merrimack College. This research was funded by California General Fund SB 170.

  • Mixed-methods analysis shows high support among Maine and California parents for School Meals for All policy

    Jul 15, 2024

    In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, US Congress authorized the USDA to provide free school meals to all students regardless of family income. After the 2021-2022 school year, most states reverted to previous eligibility criteria, but California and Maine implemented permanent universal school meal policies. A new study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics analyzed parent perceptions of these policies during the 2021-2022 school year using surveys and interviews. Results showed that parents, whether eligible for free or reduced-priced meals or not, believe universal free school meals help save time, money, and reduce stress. Parents showed high support for these policies and felt they reduced stigma, especially when applying for free or reduced-price meals. Opinions on meal healthfulness and quality were mixed, but parents appreciated the impact of the meals. Researchers suggested that states should consider adopting universal free school meal policies to reduce stigma and encourage higher participation among low-resource families. The study was conducted by Nutrition Policy Institute researchers Wendi Gosliner, Kenneth Hecht, Christina Hecht, Monica Zuercher, and Lorrene Ritchie, Leah Champman and Deborah Olarte from Merrimack College, Marlene Schwartz from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health, University of Connecticut, Lindsey Turner from Boise State University, Michele Polacsek from the University of New England, Anisha Patel from Stanford University and Juliana Cohen and Tara Daly from Merrimack College.

  • Research brief: Impacts of Government Investments in School Meals for All program in California

    Jul 8, 2024

    A recent Nutrition Policy Institute research brief explores how funds from the US Department of Agriculture and the State of California may have helped schools make improvements to their meal programs. The grants were distributed after California started the School Meals For All program to offer breakfast and lunch daily to all K-12 students at no charge, regardless of family income level, in 2022-23. The study surveyed 430 food service directors in March 2023, representing a third of all school food authorities in California, and asked about federal and local grants awarded from school year 2021-2022 until time of survey in 2023. Schools that had used the grant funds by the time of the survey reported purchasing new kitchen equipment, upgrading cafeterias, and improving operations. The grants also allowed schools to increase staff salaries and use more local produce. One school food service director put it this way, “The Kitchen Infrastructure and Training grant allowed us to make changes to our kitchens and buy new equipment that would help change the infrastructure of the way that we serve and do meals. And so, we are really making a huge push right now to get away from packaged foods.” However, many schools reported still lacking enough space for food preparation and storage, suggesting that continued investments are needed to further improve meal operations. Findings in this brief suggest that government investments in school meals may have improved the capabilities of SFAs to purchase, prepare, and store more fresh foods. The research was conducted by Monica Zuercher, Wendi Gosliner, Christina Hecht, Ken Hecht, Lorrene Ritchie and Dania Orta-Aleman from the Nutrition Policy Institute and funded by the State of California through CA SB 170, CA SB 154 and CA SB 101.

  • Study supports an increase in WIC Cash Value Benefit by identifying an impact on the amount and diversity of fruits and vegetables redeemed

    Jul 3, 2024

    Children participating in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children—commonly known as WIC—are at nutritional risk and need essential nutrients from fruits and vegetables to support development. The WIC food package includes a monthly Cash Value Benefit for purchasing fruits and vegetables. A  study in Los Angeles analyzed the impact of increasing the Cash Value Benefit on the amount and diversity of fruits and vegetables purchased by WIC participants. The Cash Value Benefit was raised from $9 to $35 per month and then adjusted to $24. Survey and redemption data from caregivers representing 1,463 WIC children showed that the diversity of fruits and vegetables redeemed increased significantly when the Cash Value Benefit increased. Although the study did not find a direct link between fruit and vegetable diversity and overall consumption, a diverse diet promotes adequate development and long-term health. The study was published online in Current Developments in Nutrition, and co-authored by Alana Chaney, Gayathri Pundi and Lauren Au of the University of California, Davis Department of Nutrition, Christopher Anderson and Shannon E Whaley of Public Health Foundation Enterprises-WIC, Lorrene Ritchie of the Nutrition Policy Institute and Cassandra Nguyen from UC Cooperative Extension at UC Davis. This study was supported by the UC Davis Public Impact Research Initiative, US Department of Agriculture/National Institute of Food and Agriculture Hatch Project# CA-D-NTR-2689-H, Healthy Eating Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, round 12, grant number 77239, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, grant number 2020-70267 and the University of California Office of the President Historically Black Colleges and Universities Fellowship.

  • NPI is seeking a graduate student Sustainable Agriculture and Food Fellow

    The Nutrition Policy Institute is seeking a University of California graduate student fellow to join our efforts to improve food and nutrition security among currently and formerly incarcerated individuals in California. This fellowship opportunity is part of the 2024-2025 UC Bonnie Reiss Climate Action Fellowship Program, which supports the UC's climate goals by reducing greenhouse gas emission and establishing climate programs and policies centered on equity, sustainability, and resiliency. In addition to working with the NPI Farm to Corrections project team, fellows will participate in UC systemwide activities. This fellowship is a 10-month commitment from September 2024 – July 2025. Fellows will receive a $5,000 stipend. Applications are due by July 31, 2024. The University of California is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer. All qualified applicants will receive consideration for employment without regard to race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, disability, age, protected veteran status, or other protected categories covered by the UC nondiscrimination policy.

  • New study describes the benefits and challenges schools experienced during the first year of California’s Universal School Meal policy

    Jun 25, 2024

    California became the first state in the nation to enact a universal school meal policy in 2022. A new study published in Nutrients explores the benefits and challenges California schools experienced during the first year of implementing the new policy, sharing results from surveys completed by 430 California school foodservice professionals in March 2023. Benefits included increased meal participation and revenues, reduced meal debt and stigma, and improved meal quality and staff salaries. Schools experienced challenges related to product and ingredient availability, staffing shortages, logistical issues with vendors and distributors, and increased administrative burden due to the end of federal waivers and return of families needing to complete school meal applications for federal reimbursement. Schools reported that state funding and increased federal school meal reimbursement rates were key factors that supported policy implementation. Findings can be used to inform other states and jurisdictions considering similar policies. The study was published online in June 2024 by lead author Monica Zuercher from the Nutrition Policy Institute, additional NPI researchers Dania Orta-Aleman, Christina Hecht, Ken Hecht, Lorrene Ritchie and Wendi Gosliner, and collaborators Juliana Cohen, Michele Polacsek and Anisha Patel. The research was funded by California General Fund Senate Bill 170, Senate Bill 154 and Senate Bill 101. Learn more about NPI's research on universal school meal programs in California and across the nation.

  • New research brief explores perspectives on the Child and Adult Care Food Program’s serious deficiency process

    Jun 24, 2024

    The federal Child and Adult Care Food Program, commonly known as CACFP, ensures over 4.2 million children, mostly in families with low income, receive nutritious meals and snacks in childcare. However, not all qualifying childcare providers participate in this beneficial program. Research suggests that the serious deficiency process, designed to ensure program integrity, may hinder participation. Interviews with ten California CACFP sponsors—who administer the program for family childcare home providers and some centers—highlight key issues. Sponsors find the process too harsh, disqualifying providers for simple mistakes, creating equity issues for those with limited technology skills or non-English speakers, and being subjective, unclear and time consuming. These findings are timely as the USDA considers improvements. The full research brief, “CACFP Family Childcare Home Sponsor Perspectives - Serious Deficiency Challenges,” was published by the Nutrition Policy Institute, University of California, Berkeley, and the CACFP Roundtable. This research is part of a larger project funded by Healthy Eating Research, and national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

  • NPI collaborates on latest USDA WIC Infant and Toddler Feeding Practices Study-2 Report

    Jun 21, 2024

    The federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children—commonly known as WIC—safeguards the health of pregnant and postpartum women, infants, and young children from low-income households who are at nutritional risk. The WIC Infant and Toddler Feeding Practices Study, also known as the "Feeding My Baby Study," is the only national study to capture data on caregivers and their children over the first nine years of the child's life after enrollment in WIC, regardless of their continued participation in the program. The WIC Infant and Toddler Feeding Practices Study-2: Sixth Year Report is the seventh in a series generated from this study. It focuses on children's dietary intake patterns, eating behaviors, and weight status during the child's 6th year, after WIC eligibility has ended. The report also explores whether patterns of WIC participation in early childhood are associated with dietary behaviors and nutrient intakes after WIC eligibility ends. Key findings from the report include:

    • Consistent 5-year participation in WIC is associated with better overall diet quality at age 6 compared to participation during only the first year of life.
    • Longer participation in WIC is associated with lower saturated fat intake at age 6.
    • At age 6, study children consumed recommended amounts of macronutrients but had inadequate intake of certain micronutrients, including vitamin E, calcium, and vitamin D.
    • Usual intake of fruits, vegetables, dairy, protein foods, and grains among study participants was consistent with that of a national sample but lower than recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

    The report was published by the US Department of Agriculture and includes Nutrition Policy Institute's Lorrene Ritchie as a co-author. Read a summary of the report online.

  • NPI releases Federal Fiscal Year 2023 CalFresh Healthy Living data briefs

    Jun 21, 2024

    A new set of data briefs developed by the Nutrition Policy Institute showcases the impactful programming carried out by local health departments through California's SNAP-Ed program in Federal Fiscal Year 2023.

    • FFY 2023 CalFresh Healthy Living Program at a Glance: Learn more about the community context and overall reach of local health department CalFresh Healthy Living in FFY 2023.
    • Policy, Systems, & Environmental Change Efforts: Learn about the audiences local health departments reached with policy, systems and environmental change—commonly known as PSE— efforts, as well as common settings and PSE approaches.
    • Educational Activities: Learn about the audiences local health departments reached with CalFresh Healthy Living education, as well as common settings and educational approaches.
    • Partnerships & Multi-Sector Coalitions: Learn about the ways local health departments engaged with community partners and multi-sector coalitions to support and sustain impactful interventions.
    • Program Effectiveness: Learn about the PSE practices in place at CalFresh Healthy Living sites as measured by site-level assessment questionnaires, behavioral outcomes of school-based interventions as evaluated via Impact Outcome Evaluation and outcomes from adult direct education.

    The data briefs were created by NPI's CalFresh Healthy Living Evaluation Unit.

  • Policy brief shows increase in WIC cash value benefit increases redemption for fresh fruits and vegetables

    Jun 19, 2024

    The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, known as WIC, provides nutrition assistance to low-income pregnant and postpartum women. The WIC cash value benefit (CVB) for fruits and vegetables was increased from $9/month to $35/month in June 2021 and was revised further to $25/month from October 1, 2022 to September 30, 2023. A new policy brief from the Nutrition Policy Institute and PHFE-WIC researchers shows how an increase in the CVB increased the redemption amount and diversity of fruits and vegetables purchased among participating families. The brief highlights findings from a larger study of 1578 WIC-participating families in Los Angeles, California that analyzed their purchases during the increase of the CVB. Study results show that the increased CVB led to significant rises in both the prevalence and dollar amount of fruit and vegetable redemption, benefiting 53 of 54 commodity groups and enhancing dietary diversity for participating households. The policy brief was developed by Catherine Yepez, Christopher Anderson, and Shannon Whaley of PHFE-WIC, a program of Heluna Health, in collaboration with Lauren Au of the University of California, Davis, Department of Nutrition, and Marisa Tsai and Lorrene Ritchie with the Nutrition Policy Institute.

Please see additional news items in our News section