By Janice Kao, UC Nutrition Policy Institute, and Kim Guess, University Health Services
California, and especially Berkeley, has long been at the forefront of innovative nutrition policy. From school food to sugary drink taxes to healthy checkout ordinances, policymakers, university researchers, public health professionals, and food systems advocates recognize that policies are a helpful tool to ensure that everyone has equitable access to healthy food and beverage options where they live, learn, work, and play. The UC Berkeley Food and Beverage Choices policy is another powerful example of a collective commitment to making change happen.
In the United States, over 25 million people work and learn at colleges and universities, consuming an untold number of meals, snacks, and beverages while on campus. Unlike in K-12 schools, higher education institutions are not governed by federal policies to ensure that foods and beverages sold on campus meet minimum nutrition standards. While many universities participate in voluntary campus wellness initiatives, UC Berkeley is the only university that we know of to have officially adopted a comprehensive, campus-wide nutrition policy, the Food and Beverage Choices (FBC) Policy. Just like the name says, this policy ensures that there is a variety of healthy, affordable choices available wherever you go to buy food or drinks on campus. It gives all members of the campus community the opportunity to make healthy choices.
Getting the policy adopted was a years-long process, with multiple attempts to get approval from campus leadership. In 2015, the vice-chancellor of administration and finance gave University Health Services (UHS) the go-ahead to take the lead on policy development. Policy success doesn’t end with policy adoption–collaboration has been an invaluable and critical piece throughout the process of getting the FBC policy off the ground.
The FBC policy was initially drafted based on other established nutrition standards and guidelines and reflected a joint effort, led by UHS with contributions from staff and faculty from the School of Public Health, the Department of Nutritional Sciences and Toxicology, and the Berkeley Food Institute. Once a draft was complete, gathering input was key to ensure that this policy would complement existing UCB policies and could be realistically implemented. During the review process, staff, faculty, students, and vendors were asked to review drafts of the policy and provide feedback. These included representatives from dining, concessions, sustainability, Basic Needs (anti-hunger and income support services), various academic departments, the student union, residence hall assembly, campus food and beverage vendors, and many more stakeholder groups. Dedicating the time to seek out such wide-ranging input made finalizing the FBC policy a more iterative process and also served to make the campus community aware that this policy was coming. It also gave the policy team an opportunity to incorporate the feedback by adjusting the policy language or improving policy training and promotion materials. The final version of the policy was adopted on January 1, 2018, and went into effect on January 1, 2019.
Now that the process of policy Implementation is underway, it continues to be a collaborative, on-going effort, guided by an advisory team with representatives from UHS, Cal Dining, Nutritional Sciences and Toxicology, the Nutrition Policy Institute, Environmental Health and Safety, Berkeley Food Institute, Athletics, and the School of Public Health.
Enacting policies is not a quick fix. Rather, it’s an important tool in helping our campus community achieve their health goals. Policies are a written commitment and statement of priorities–the FBC policy is an official document that can help guide dining and procurement decisions and also symbolizes Berkeley’s commitment to fostering an environment where students, staff, faculty and visitors can access healthier food and drink options. And it’s starting to work! Early evaluation results show promising trends, especially for snack vending machines. When comparing the year before policy implementation to the year after, both availability and purchases of healthy snacks increased, all without a dip in overall revenues. An exciting win-win that will continue to be tracked. In addition, all four dining commons were compliant with the policy as of Fall 2021.
Another example of this project’s success is that FBC policy language will be added to new food and beverage contracts, so vendors who want to sell food and drinks on campus will commit to offering plenty of healthy options in each of the places they sell, while limiting marketing of unhealthy options. This will be helpful as the campus reevaluates what beverage service will look like at Berkeley in the future, whether that means entering into another pouring rights contract (where a single company retains the rights to market and sell beverages on campus) or moving away from that type of agreement.
Each step of the policy making process, from development to implementation, was captured in a case report published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, generating nationwide interest and support. Our experience in the development, establishment, implementation and evaluation of the FBC policy are detailed in the report, as an example for other campuses and universities to use as they endeavor to make food and drink options healthier for their students, faculty, and staff. The report includes discussion of the challenges and barriers encountered during policy implementation. The report was developed by Zachary Rickrode-Fernandez of Center for Environmental Health and recent graduate of the UC Berkeley School of Public Health; Janice Kao, a policy and program evaluation specialist at the UC Nutrition Policy Institute; Mary Lesser, Nutritional Sciences and Toxicology faculty at UC Berkeley, and Kim Guess, wellness program dietitian and policy lead, at University Health Services, UC Berkeley.
Food and nutrition policies are ever evolving and require continuous collaboration and thought partnership to remain useful and impactful. The Covid-19 pandemic presented our entire campus community with a unique set of challenges: some within, and many outside of our control. As students, faculty, and staff have largely returned to campus for the 2021–22 academic year, Cal Dining and various food services on campus are back in full swing but supply chain issues and understaffing on campus are also a new reality. The FBC policy remains a powerful tool to provide a range of choices that the campus community needs, while remaining nimble and responsive to changing conditions. For more information on how you can support a healthy campus environment, please visit uhs.berkeley.edu/foodbeveragepolicy.