It’s 3 p.m. You’re looking for a mid-afternoon snack. You go to a vending machine expecting to see only chips, cookies and candy bars. Instead, you also find nuts, trail mix and air-popped snacks.

What do you choose? It turns out that when offered healthier items, people respond positively. Policymakers, looking for ways to improve population health, can learn from a vending machine study by UCLA, believed to be the first of its kind on an American college campus.

As part of the UC Global Food Initiative, the University of California has compiled case studies of how research done at UC campuses, including UCLA’s vending machine study, has contributed to food and agriculture policy.

The UC Global Food Initiative’s Research to Policy working group recently published a report of case studies highlighting ways UC research has been used to inform or affect policies in food and agriculture.

Rebecca Kendall/UCLA
A vending machine at UCLA with Healthy Campus Initiative picks

Among those case studies cited is the study that was done by members of UCLA’s Healthy Campus Initiative in collaboration with UCLA’s Housing and Hospitality Services. Researchers planned, implemented and evaluated a pilot vending machine program aimed at encouraging customers to choose healthier items over conventional snack items without compromising the financial viability of the machines.

“What we aimed to do was methodologically identify healthier products and encourage customers to choose them, all without compromising the machines’ financial performance,” said Joe Viana, a doctoral student at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health who conducted the study.

The study showed an improved likelihood of purchasing something healthier without losing revenue or profit. When surveyed, many respondents said they would like to see more healthy snacks in campus machines.

This research is now being used to inform the vending operations across the UC system, as part of the UC Global Food Initiative, and could be applied more broadly as well.

This is just one salient example of how UC research is helping to uncover answers to the nation’s obesity epidemic and other thorny food-related issues.

Financial implications of limiting choice

When education officials were considering banning the sale of sodas, chips and candy in California’s K-12 schools, they called in UC Berkeley researchers to analyze the financial implications. Could schools afford to limit these lucrative items?

The answer from the study was surprising: Cutting the sale of junk food actually helped the bottom line because students were more likely to eat healthy, subsidized meals, a change that boosted federal funding to the state and improved nutrition.

As a result of the work by advocates armed with data from this UC study, California became the first state in the nation to limit the sale of these kinds of unhealthy foods and beverages in K-12 schools.

Body mass index studies of California students indicated a reduction in obesity after the policy change, fueling adoption of similar policies across the country. The 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to update nutrition standards for schools nationwide.

Changing what California preschoolers drink

The average American consumes 45 gallons of sugary drinks per year. Liquid sugar, such as in sodas, energy drinks and sports drinks, is the leading single source of added sugar in the American diet. And there’s growing scientific evidence that it’s the most dangerous way to consume added sugar.

UC research is helping provide healthier beverage choices for California preschoolers in child care.

UC Agriculture and Natural Resources’ Lorrene Ritchie conducted a study that found a substantial need for improving the beverages served to young children in licensed child care. That helped lead to the Healthy Beverages in Child Care Law (AB 2084), aimed at offering alternatives to sugary drinks. This law currently stands among the most comprehensive of any state laws on child care beverages. After follow-up research found the need to raise awareness of the law, the Legislature passed AB 290, requiring that newly licensed child care providers receive at least one hour of child nutrition training starting in 2016.

Meanwhile, UC San Francisco, whose SugarScience initiative informs the public about sugar and its impact on health, has set an example by launching a Healthy Beverage Initiative. UC San Francisco will sell only zero-calorie beverages or non-sweetened drinks with nutritional value and will phase out the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages in its onsite cafeterias and food vendors, vending machines and retail locations.

UCSF is the first university to implement this strategy across both its medical center and campus, and other institutions in San Francisco are following suit.

Help for food industry workers

How can we improve living standards for those on the lowest rungs of our nation’s economic ladder? Seven of the 10 lowest-paying jobs in America are in the food industry. Saru Jayaraman, director of UC Berkeley’s Food Labor Research Center and cofounder of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, wants to change that statistic.

She has been employing academic tools, analyzing government data and surveying workers to help persuade policymakers in states from Minnesota to New York to introduce bills ending the subminimum wage for tipped employees — who make as little as $2.13 per hour in many states.

Another study by UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco researchers found widespread violations of minimum wage labor laws for restaurant workers in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The report revealed that half of workers reported being paid less than minimum wage, and two-thirds were not paid overtime. The findings sparked community outrage, media attention and legislative action: San Francisco became the second city in the country to enact a wage theft law.

Growing a community’s spirit

Millions of Americans live in low-income areas that lack access to fresh, healthy and affordable food. Instead of farmers markets and grocery stores, their food options may be limited to convenience stores and fast food restaurants. What’s a healthier alternative?

In southeastern San Diego, local residents are transforming a 20,000-square-foot vacant urban lot into a community focal point for healthy living. The Ocean View Growing Grounds offers a place for people to grow food, socialize with their neighbors and hold events. Neighbors active at the site are partnering with nonprofit groups, UC San Diego researchers and students to address public health problems, from obesity to environmental degradation.

UC San Diego’s Keith Pezzoli leads a project that includes supporting the cultivation of community gardens, beginning with the Ocean View site. The city of San Diego sees the project as a model for interim use of a vacant lot, and their work has the potential to reach much farther.

Read the complete story about food-related research projects going on at other UC campuses.