Aggie Square Faculty Panel Discusses "Food, Health & Youth"

On the morning of January 16, in a room packed with leaders in business, government, education and the media, UC Davis Chancellor Gary May joined chef and food advocate Alice Waters at the Aggie Square headquarters in Sacramento to announce a new collaboration. They unveiled the Alice Waters Institute for Edible Education at UC Davis, which will build on the success of the Edible Schoolyard Project, Waters’ 25-year-old initiative aimed at helping schools integrate healthy food education into the K-12 curriculum.

Later that evening, a group of UC Davis researchers and clinicians from both the Davis and Sacramento campuses gathered at Aggie Square headquarters to address issues of food, health and youth from a variety of perspectives.

The group was convened by Dr. Lars Berglund, associate vice chancellor for biomedical research and vice dean for research at UC Davis Health. His task was to assemble an interdisciplinary group around the themes of food, health and youth. The panel included:

  • Francene Steinberg, professor and chair of the department of nutrition at the UC Davis College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences. Steinberg also led the Student Food Security Task Force which issued its report in August 2018. She researches foods that promote cardiovascular health.
  • Kevin Gee, associate professor at the UC Davis School of Education and co-director of the doctorate in educational leadership program. Gee examines the links between health and education, including the impact of food insecurity in schools.
  • Dr. Daphne Say, pediatric gastroenterologist at UC Davis Health. Say leads the UC Davis Children's Hospital pediatric inflammatory bowel disease program. She also focuses on food security issues for vulnerable families.
  • Dianne Mills, clinical dietician at UC Davis Health and senior dietician supervisor at UC Davis Children’s Hospital. Her area of expertise is in outcomes of poor nutrition and poor social supports.

Berglund began by asking each panelist to share from his or her own perspective how food plays a role in children’s health and educational outcomes.

Steinberg noted the sense of urgency on the issue of food security, explaining that it is pervasive — even on the Davis campus. A “shockingly high” percentage of UC Davis students have difficulty meeting their basic needs and are regularly forced to make difficult choices based on limited resources.

“As costs increase, students must choose between paying rent, paying for food or paying for books,” Steinberg said. “Every year you get a new crop of students experiencing this as a new reality.”

Other panelists agreed. Say described meeting families facing similar challenges — deciding between buying food or medicine — when they arrive in her clinic.

Gee noted a variety of psycho-social impacts when families don’t have a stable source of food, while Mills explained that many families don’t have access to the most nutritious foods because they tend to be costly or simply not available in their neighborhoods. “It’s difficult to ask them to change behaviors,” Mills said, adding, “We see huge disparities in outcomes when they don’t have access to food.”

The panelists also agreed that school-centered policies are an important part of the solution.

Citing data that suggested school lunch, school breakfast and “weekend backpack” programs have had a positive impact on education-specific outcomes, Gee said this, in turn, helps reduce the stress experienced by parents when they struggle to meet their children’s basic needs. “Parental stress is the mechanism that is transferring stress upon kids,” he explained.

A main challenge now is improving the quality of food schools provide in these programs. The panelists agreed that too often, schools serve foods based on cost or procurement contracts rather than the nutritional needs of the children they serve. Shelf-stable, less nutritious foods like French fries or pizza dominate the menu so often that children may refuse to eat other foods because they aren’t familiar to them.

All believe the Alice Waters Institute for Edible Education at UC Davis could be instrumental in shifting the tide.

“We must change the programs to (offer) quality, sustainable, whole food,” Mills said. “If it’s incorporated into the curriculum across the board, kids will buy in.”

“Offering high quality school lunch to all our kids would be game changing,” Say added. “With all the nutrition-based diseases happening, knowing that kids are getting this nutrition daily is so helpful to how we practice medicine.” 

The panelists pointed to another potential game-changer: Aggie Square itself. Because the innovation hub will serve to break down silos at UC Davis and connect researchers with community leaders, advocates will develop more comprehensive, interdisciplinary solutions.

In fact, this panel marked the first time the four panelists had ever discussed the issue together.

Steinberg had never met Say or Gee before. “Just the fact that we’re having these conversations creates opportunities to affect positive change,” Say explained.

As the discussion wrapped up, the panelists talked about possible interdisciplinary collaborations, in close cooperation with local community leaders.