This is one of a series of stories featuring a sampling of UC ANR academics whose work exemplifies the public value UC ANR brings to California.
As an international development undergraduate at UCLA in the late 2000s, Natalie Price learned of the preventable health conditions prevalent in developing countries and wanted to be part of the solution. The Los Angeles native soon realized, however, that people in her own backyard were also struggling to keep their families healthy and well fed. She decided to join UC Cooperative Extension in Los Angeles and Orange counties to work towards improving food access and affordability for Southern California's most vulnerable residents.
“There's a lot of inequality in terms of pay and access to resources,” said Price, who was named UCCE nutrition, family and consumer sciences advisor in 2017. “I think access to healthy, affordable food is a fundamental human right, especially for kids. It is so important they have reliable food for physical development, mental health and school performance.”
Price earned a master's degree in public health at UCLA and worked for four years with the Los Angeles County Office of Education developing a school nutrition education program and school garden training. In her UCCE post, Price supervises Los Angeles and Orange counties' Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, in which nutrition educators visit schools to teach parents and youth to exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet and access resources that make achieving those goals easier.
“In Los Angeles and Orange counties, the cost of living is very high,” Price said. “A lot of families work multiple jobs and still can't comfortably pay their rent and buy the nutritious foods their families need.”
In southeast Los Angeles County, 32.4% of households with incomes under 300% of the Federal Poverty Level are considered food insecure, approximately 79,000 individuals, according to the Los Angeles Department of Public Health. Unable to take on such a daunting task on her own, Price co-chaired a food security symposium in 2019 that brought together 98 people representing 85 direct service organizations interested in taking collective action to serve food-insecure residents of southeast Los Angeles.
Of the symposium participants who completed an evaluation, 65% said they increased their awareness of the food resources available to help food-insecure individuals and families in their area and know how to access them, and 86% increased their understanding of current state and federal policies affecting food-insecure individuals and food assistance programs.
"Information about immigration will be shared with the people of the community, for instance, information about Public Charge,” wrote one participant about a segment of the symposium that outlined a federal policy negatively affecting food insecure immigrant populations. Many immigrants fear they could be denied legal status in the United States if they receive publicly funded services, however, the rule is frequently misunderstood and can lead to immigrants unnecessarily rejecting food assistance.
While Los Angeles and Orange counties are closely connected by freeways and economic activity, the two counties differ. During a needs assessment study in Orange County, Price found that the county was primed to work in food waste prevention. Limiting food waste can boost food security and reduce food waste in landfills, where anaerobic conditions may cause rotting food to emit greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Consumer food waste prevention education is a theme Price plans to tie into her work overseeing the UC Master Food Preserver Program. She was planning a food waste prevention campaign on social media when priorities had to be modified due to the worldwide coronavirus outbreak.
“Food insecurity went up dramatically with the shutdown of schools and businesses,” Price said.
She worked with her nutrition education staff to adapt their food security and affordability curriculum to offer it to families online.
“We're doing a lot of outreach and recruiting families to take our EFNEP course. Now we have our online classes up and running,” Price said. “Many parents with school-aged children are becoming familiar with online learning and have a device at home to participate in classes. However, for some, technology can still be a big barrier.”
Price is now working with her UCCE Tulare County colleague Deepa Srivastava to offer online video courses created by partner organization Leas' Pantry to teach families how to maintain a healthy diet while stretching their food dollars.