A Magazine from California State University, ChicoFall 2014 Issue

Promoting Solutions for a Healthy North State

Healthy eating graphics

Nutrition center expands its mission as the Center for Healthy Communities

In 2001, there was no health education program anywhere quite like the one that Cindy Wolff envisioned. It was then that Wolff, registered dietitian and nutrition professor at California State University, Chico, received an initial $40,000 grant from the Butte County Children and Families Commission.

That modest seed funding from California’s new cigarette and tobacco taxes launched the OPT (Overweight Prevention and Treatment) for Fit Kids program, which offered preschoolers from low-income families age-appropriate information about the importance of good nutrition and physical activity.

Subsequent funding supported OPT’s rapid evolution into the Center for Nutrition and Activity Promotion (CNAP). It added health-promotion programs for older children, including the family-based Lifelong Eating and Activity Patterns program, designed to educate entire families about the need for change.

In 2004, the center received a $4.9 million grant from the California Nutrition Network to fund CNAP’s Sierra Cascade Nutrition and Activity Consortium education outreach projects. Parents, educators, and public health officials were expressing alarm about rapidly rising rates of obesity in children. They were also concerned about increases in high blood pressure, diabetes, and other weight-related health problems that were once rare in childhood.

In the decade since, obesity has become an international crisis, and the center has been widely recognized as a leader in research-based nutrition, physical activity, and policy approaches intended to help reverse the trend.

What’s in a name?

Broadening the center’s focus—to emphasize the importance of community change as well as changes in individual and family lifestyles—led to a new name. In October 2014, the Center for Nutrition and Activity Promotion became the Center for Healthy Communities (CHC).

“We were implementing services, before,” says Stephanie Bianco, the center’s assistant director, also an associate professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Science and a registered dietitian. “Now we’re the leader in this area. We serve as a resource for other agencies offering these services, though we subcontract with many Northern California counties and in that sense do still provide services. But we’re increasingly interested in policy change, for effective and lasting solutions.”

CHC students in the food labThe need for a name change came slowly, says Bianco.

“The center has evolved into the Center for Healthy Communities,” she explains. “Where we once offered nutrition education to participants who were low income, we’re now covering one-third of the state of California in all demographics. We’re including multiple disciplines in our research, from all of the University’s colleges.”

Bianco, whose first job was working in a Fresno packinghouse alongside Hmong growers, spent many years in the for-profit food-service industry. She arrived at the center in 2006 with considerable experience in management and human resources. Because of her work in private sector business, Bianco has pushed for the development of the center’s fee-for-service programs.

“We’re not just supporting healthy families,” she says. “We also provide worksite wellness services, weight management, nutrition education, medical nutrition therapy, and lactation counseling, and we prepare and serve fresh food for seniors—none of which we’d done before.”

Bianco hopes to see the Center for Healthy Communities double in size within the next five years—an increase that would at least double the number of CSU, Chico students the program can recruit and mentor.

“There are so many opportunities out there, in terms of providing preventative health service,” says Bianco. “Utilizing university students to help deliver services is not just for our benefit and for the community’s, but for their own—definitely a win–win–win.” 

Opportunities for students

CSU, Chico students are “mission central,” says Bianco, which means the center is committed to providing opportunities for “interdisciplinary service learning, civic engagement, and research to serve the educational, cultural, and economic needs of communities.” Currently, that translates into about 120 graduate and undergraduate interns and 80 paid student employees at the CHC every year.

According to Bianco, the center initially attracted nutrition students almost exclusively. But now nutrition and food science students make up only about 50 percent of the intern-employee mix. Other students come from academic disciplines including public health, social work, kinesiology, business and marketing, computer science, graphic design, journalism and public relations, political science, and women’s studies.

Bianco says that providing hands-on, real-world experience through internships requires a commitment to extensive training.

“We have a system in place that is essentially constant training—staff training students, students training students—and it’s very well organized,” she says. “We definitely have a model internship program.”

The center’s training programs, in fact, mimic most features of professional employment—starting with an initial “meet and greet,” a fast-paced prescreening and interview experience that involves 50 to 100 students every semester. This process introduces students to the CHC and allows center staff a chance to get an idea of the students’ individual interests and abilities.

Once accepted, CHC interns go through several days of intensive training. Ongoing training makes expectations absolutely clear, from appropriate attire and conduct to email and social media etiquette, from standard work practices and self-organization to learning how to work independently and take initiative. Students also track their tasks and hours each week, and work with their supervisors on goal setting and performance evaluations.

Only students who succeed as interns are eligible to apply for paid student employment positions at the center. The competition for paid positions is stiff—just as it will be for entry-level positions after graduation. 

A respected regional influence

The center began in 2001 with just one health program, in Butte County. Today it offers 23 programs and provides services in every county within CSU, Chico’s service area. 

To support its broad community health goals, the CHC partners with county and state public health and social services departments, county education offices, school districts, tribal organizations, health care centers and clinics, Community Action Agencies, and various other community organizations and service agencies.

The center’s health-related research currently engages 14 faculty members from 12 departments and, in a typical year, produces six publications in peer-reviewed journals, 15 presentations at professional conferences, and 20 poster papers at state, national, and international conferences.

In little more than a decade, the CHC has grown into a respected regional influence, serving Northern California—on many levels—while also attracting and inspiring regional residents and partnerships.

One of those partners is Jake Brimlow, who earned his BA at CSU, Chico (Economics, ’98) before going on to get his doctorate and is an assistant professor of agricultural business in Chico’s College of Agriculture. Brimlow grew up in Humboldt County, surrounded by small farming and the timber industry. His research interests focus on how to increase the profitability and resiliency of farms and food businesses through local food-system development.

As one of the center’s research partners, Brimlow is working with CHC graduate students on an Agriculture Research Institute grant to determine—through an agricultural producer survey—barriers to local food production and distribution. He also received a USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture grant that creates partnerships with the CHC and the Northern California Regional Land Trust. “CHC’s support and promotion of interdisciplinary projects has increased its reach and helped it leverage existing knowledge bases,” says Brimlow.

“Whether or not farmers are profitable in our region is important for multiple reasons,” he says. And it can be beneficial for local economies if food is processed and distributed locally, “with all that value-added income captured here.”

Jenni Dye, a registered dietitian and nutrition education specialist at the CHC, grew up in rural Fall River Mills. She was active in school sports and competed in track and field as well as rodeo events. She was involved in both 4-H and the Future Farmers of America. She and her sisters even had a pig-breeding business.

“It was the quintessential small-town childhood,” says Dye, “where the village helped raise you. It was wonderful.”

Not so wonderful, though, was her family’s high risk, genetically, for diabetes. When Dye was in junior high, her grandmother started to suffer complications. She had a stroke and could no longer walk. Then, halfway through college, her mother was diagnosed with diabetes.

“My interest in health became central,” she says. “I knew that my family had a high risk of diabetes, and I was worried. I wanted to know how to prevent it, or successfully deal with it. My first focus was my family, getting the education I needed to be able to help.”

Dye was working at Feather River Hospital as a dietary aide at the time, and she was ready for work that focused more on prevention than treatment. She started as a CHC intern when she was a CSU, Chico graduate student. 

And she’s happy to report that her family is now doing well with diabetes management and prevention. “With my help, my mom’s done great with her diabetes, and it’s under control,” she says. “My nephew has a very strange food allergy, so I get calls about that. I think my family really enjoys that I have this knowledge, because they can just call and say: ‘What should I do?’ When my grandparents were in the hospital for gallbladder problems, they called me too. Not just what to do nutritionally, but what to ask the doctors: ‘If a doctor says this to you, what do you say?’ And knowing their rights: ‘Yes, you can look at your charts!’ ”

Alyson Wylie of Red Bluff, a self-described “curriculum geek,” was also attracted by the center’s education emphasis. She was amazed by the Harvest of the Month “produce appreciation” work being done in Red Bluff schools and asked a staff member: “How can I do what you do?”

Wylie, now a full-time program manager, started as a part-time site assistant in Red Bluff. At the local market, she often ran into youngsters who would start dancing, imitating the giant zucchinis or avocados—college students dressed up as vegetables and fruits—they remembered from the classroom presentations.

“I just love this job,” she says.

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The Student Experience: How Healthy Is That Résumé?

Alturas in Modoc County is home for nutrition graduate student and CHC employee Jennifer Joyce. The highly regarded nutrition program at CSU, Chico attracted Joyce because she was an athlete.

 “I always noticed that the way I fueled my body affected my performance, in sports and also in everyday life,” she says.

Joyce (in photo below, left) found her way to the center and started working there as an intern. She works on administration, but she’s also gotten plenty of nutrition field experience because there are frequent calls for “more hands” on projects.

CHC students in the food lab

“That’s something the CHC has taught me—how to be adaptable,” she says. “When I first started, it was a struggle to learn so many things, then accept, after you’d just learned something, that it was changing.

“But the CHC is a very supportive work environment. We’re encouraged to do our best. We all learn that everything we do is just part of a process. That process keeps changing, so we have to change right along with it.”

The center provides a safe, structured environment in which to learn, to grow, and to develop professional skills, explains Joyce. Her own résumé “started with nothing” and now includes two pages of solid experience.

How does work in administration help Joyce prepare for a career in nutrition?

“As a dietitian, I’ll have to do a lot of paperwork,” she says. “I’ll have to communicate with staff and with other organizations, and I do a lot of that now in my job. I also know how to keep myself organized. I have improved my communication skills greatly, and my professional skills in general.” 

Joyce has also had the opportunity to meet nutrition and health professionals throughout Northern California. She quickly realized that the center has a very good reputation.

“So I can easily see myself approaching a future employer or a future partner and letting them know where I’ve worked, the experience I’ve had, and then discussing what I’d like to do next,” she says.

About the author

Kim Weir, a CSU, Chico graduate (BA, Environmental Studies and Analysis, ’77; Master of Fine Arts, ’07), is communications and media director for the Center for Healthy Communities. She is also founder and editor of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest media project.