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Nutrition and Food Systems Education

by Mariah Coley last modified Jun 15, 2017 11:19 AM
Food and nutrition education has a critical role in instilling sustainable values in households and communities.

Youth education can contribute to reversing trends of childhood obesity, food insecurity, and poor food choices in an effort to promote sustainable lifestyles.  Adult educational seminars and resources have been proven to fundamentally change the way individuals make decisions.  With the appropriate support from researchers, activists, and professionals, these changes can significantly alter the overarching sustainability of the food system.


Education about the food system can be focused on any number of related topics and aimed at individuals, households, and groups of all ages.  Efforts to increase agricultural education in primary and secondary schooling systems is ongoing in an attempt to reverse the trend of an aging and declining farm worker population.  In California over 80,000 members are involved in agricultural education courses and state FFA programs.  Though relatively high compared to many other states, this number accounts for only a small fraction of the more than two million high school age students in the state.  Researchers suggest that most food system education may also effectively occur outside of the traditional formal education system.

Nutrition education is a fundamental aspect in reducing risk of chronic disease.  Chronic illness associated with heart disease, cancer, strokes, and diabetes have been tied to lifestyle factors including diet and exercise.  Improved nutrition education can successfully increase the amount of fruits and vegetables consumed during the day and can help families with limited resources choose healthy and well-balanced diets. 

Garden based education has become an internationally promoted movement to enhance children’s learning in an experiential learning setting.  Exposure to nature and gardening during childhood has been linked to shaping adult attitudes and environmental values.  The learning outcomes most often critically analyzed are those associated with health and nutrition, although environmental awareness, critical thinking, and self-esteem impacts have also been recorded.  Science achievement, nutrition knowledge, and change in food behavior have all been studied to determine the effects of garden-based education.  Ongoing research suggests that food system education for children can be an influential aspect in shaping attitudes towards sustainability as an adult.

UC Research and Outreach in Nutrition and Food System Education

UC CalFresh is a program funded through the US Department of Agriculture/Food and Nutrition Service, the California Department of Social Services CalFresh branch, and UC Cooperative Extension. The program is a state run distributor of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) which provides support to low-income people in the US through food purchasing benefits.  In 2008 SNAP expanded the funding available for nutrition education.  The Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) was developed through this additional funding.  The goal is to increase the likelihood that people in California who are eligible for the federal nutrition program make healthy food choices and opt for physically active lifestyles.  The mission of California EFNEP aims to improve household and individual nutritional education through four core areas.  This includes diet quality and physical activity, food resource management, food safety, and food security.

The national Farm to School initiative operates multiple networks across the State of California.  This approach assigns regional leads to help establish and maintain connections between and among counties.  Several of these regional leads are directly affiliated with the University of California, while others may rely on resources and implementation assistance that can be provided through the university. 

The Nutrition Policy Institute (NPI) is an organization which researches and evaluates the impact of nutrition and physical activity on public health.  Many focal research projects aim to provide evidence for supporting public policies related to eliminating health disparities which stem from lack of access to healthy foods.  The goal of NPI is to enable communities where “healthy food, beverages and opportunities for physical activity are convenient, accessible, affordable and sustainable”.

EatFit is a program developed at UC Davis to encourage adolescents to improve their food choices and lead healthier lifestyles.  The program consists of an online application that performs an individualized eating analysis and follow up teacher curriculum for hands-on activities to help students become more aware of their food choices.  

The Center for Nutrition in Schools provides educational programs and resources to improve student health and assist students in achieving their full potential academically, socially, and physically.  The center conducts research to further characterize school environments that enhance food and nutrition awareness, knowledge, and skills.

The school gardening program at the Student Farm at UC Davis provides hands on training and additional resources to establish and continue the effective use of school gardens.  The program is aimed at adults looking to enhance the educational components of school gardens.  

The UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) provides a variety of resources to promote agricultural and food systems education across the state.  UC ANR includes over 200 locally based cooperative extension advisors and specialists across the state and 130 campus-based cooperative extension specialists to provide farmers and individuals access to reliable and accurate agricultural information.

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UC Research in Nutrition and Food Systems Education

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