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Food Blog

Healthy food and food insecurity

Farmers grow lettuce, spinach, broccoli and other vegetables in California's Imperial Valley, Central Valley, Salinas Valley and far northern counties. However, these nutritious foods are not readily available to local low income communities.

“Children often don't have access to healthy food options,” said Christopher Gomez Wong, UC Cooperative Extension nutrition educator in Imperial County. “I'm from the Imperial Valley and often the fruits and vegetables grown here are not sold in local markets.”

According to the non-profit organization Feeding America, almost 2.5 million young people in the United States do not have access to nutritious food.

Despite the abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables grown in California, some residents don't have access to nutritious food. (Photo: USDA)

“In California, one of every six children lives in a home where it's difficult to get the amount of nutritious food needed for their families,” said Lorrene Ritchie, director of the UC Nutrition Policy Institute. “We call this ‘food insecurity.'”

A study by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) found that food insecurity increases school absences and behavioral problems, and reduces children's concentration and academic achievement.

Ritchie, who leads a group of experts fighting obesity and food insecurity, said when family income is not sufficient, there is a tendency to buy cheaper foods, generally, junk food.

“If I'm hungry and I don't have much money, I'm going to a fast food restaurant where I can get more calories at a lower price,” Ritchie said. “Fast foods have more calories and cost less, but they typically also contain more sugar, salt and fat.”

For example, research presented at the UC ANR Statewide Conference on food insecurity included a graphic showing that for one dollar, consumers can purchase a bag of potato chips with 1,200 calories or a soda with 875 calories. In contrast, one dollar can buy just 250 calories of fresh vegetables or 170 calories of fresh fruit.

In everyday life, there are many examples of nutritious foods being displaced by junk foods

“We are studying children's eating habits,” Gomez Wong said. “Children aren't eating in the cafeteria and are eating lots of sweets. Five dollars more often buys them chips and a soda than a salad.”

Eating lunch at school helps students make better food choices. (Photo: USDA)

UC ANR works to combat food insecurity in many ways. It implements various ongoing community programs, conducts research and promotes government nutrition programs.

Urban gardens and orchards have a positive impact in low income communities, particularly where families do not have space for their own gardens and are interested in growing their own food. One example is the Community Settlement Association in Riverside. Other cities with similar programs are Sacramento, San Jose, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.

UC Master Food Preserver Program teaches the public how to preserve food by canning, freezing and drying in order to take advantage lower prices for fruit and vegetables purchased in season.

Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) offers free nutrition workshops in most California counties where people can learn how to purchase nutritious foods for less money and how to prepare them.

In addition, there are successful government programs, such as the National School Lunch Program, that provides nutritious foods free or at a reduced cost for children in public schools. The food is aligned with the national food guidelines that promote the consumption of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and low-fat milk.

“Every study we have done shows that school food contributes in an important way to children's nutrition,” Ritchie said. “For example, many children can meet half of their daily nutrition needs from school foods available absolutely free. I encourage all families to review school food programs to assure that their children arrive at school in time for the school breakfast and take advantage of the school lunch.”

MyPlate
In the fight against food insecurity, UC ANR has made important contributions, however, the challenges are enormous given that society continues to promote junk food of low nutritional quality.

“What we are trying to figure out is how to create an environment in which healthy options are the easiest options,” Ritchie said.

She said it would be ideal if supermarkets were designed under in concert with the healthy eating guidelines set forth in MyPlate. That is to say, to have stores where half the space is devoted to fruit and vegetables, a third is grains and whole grains, and another third are proteins, dairy foods and water (although water is not currently on MyPlate.)   

Link to the Spanish version of this story.

Posted on Tuesday, January 22, 2019 at 8:03 AM
Focus Area Tags: Food

For family fun and treats - a winter farm visit

California farmers all over the state invite you to visit, shake off the city, learn a little and enjoy your holiday shopping the old-fashioned way; direct from the growers of winter fruits and creators of small-batch treats to fill your gift baskets. Here is a sample of some day-trips the whole family can enjoy:

Mountain Mandarin Orchard Days - Placer County - December 15 & 16, 2018

Follow the mandarin trail and join the Mountain Mandarin Growers' Association (MMGA) members at their groves on the third weekend in December for Orchard Days. They have loads of family fun in store.

Visit the Mandarin Growers Map page to find the groves closest to you and for a list of Orchard Days activities at each ranch. The fun includes artists, crafters, and mandarin product sampling including oils, sauces, honey, juice, cakes, fudge and spreads. You can also visit with Santa, visit farm animals, get your face painted and pick your own mandarins. Learn more

Holiday Santa Tour and Sanrio Village - Tanaka Farms, Orange County - December 15 & 16, 2018

Take a wagon ride around the 30 acre farm and sample the delicious winter vegetables growing along the way. (Yes, Tanaka is a real working farm!) Your friendly tour guide will tell you all about the farm and history as you enjoy the scenery. Make a special stop on the tour in Tanaka Land on the top of the hill where you might get caught up in a snow flurry!

You will also have the opportunity to take photos with Santa and other farm-themed holiday sets while enjoying the gorgeous view. The wagon will then transport you back down to the festival grounds where you can continue the winer fun and photo opportunities. After the tour, take a "Walk through the Seasons" in a meandering corn maze filled with Hello Kitty & Friends decor celebrating each of our harvest seasons, all leading to the Sanrio Holiday Village, specially decorated for the holidays. Learn more

Holidays Along the Farm Trails - Sonoma County - various activities until January 1, 2019

'Tis the season to celebrate with the community. Join Sonoma County farmers and producers as they open their gates and barn doors to offer a behind-the-scenes peek at life on the farm. Shop their unique farm stand for your holiday meals, cut your own Christmas tree, make a gift at DIY workshops, greet farm animals, and so much more.

Along the trail, you can tour a creamery, taste wine and cider, and watch a jam-making demo. Visitors must register (for free) to receive the list of participating destinations and offerings in the interactive online map. CLICK HERE TO REGISTER.

Music at the Mill - Seka Hills Olive Mill & Tasting Room - Capay Valley, Yolo County - December 15, 2018

Join us for an afternoon of live music featuring local artist, Tom Norris! Saturday, December 15 from 1 to 3 p.m. Guests will also enjoy a special offer of 35 percent off the mixed case sale.

The Séka Hills Olive Mill & Tasting Room showcases the agricultural bounty of the region and is a destination for artisan goods and delicious locally sourced fare. Visitors are treated to scenic views of the surrounding orchard and rolling blue hills that inspired the name Séka Hills.

The Tasting Room is located inside the 14,000 square foot olive mill facility, offering an insider's view of how the Tribe's olives are grown, milled and finished into world-class, award-winning Séka Hills extra virgin olive oils. Guided tours and tastings offer visitors a chance to experience the growing line of fine agricultural products from the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation that now includes olive oils, wines, honey, beef jerky and seasoned nuts. Learn more.

Suisun Valley Anniversary Celebration 2018 - Solano County - December 26, 2018

Did you know that, in order to designate a wine as "Suisun Valley", 85 percent of the grapes used to make the wine must have been grown within the Suisun Valley AVA? When you tour Suisun Valley during this Aniversary Celebration you are helping to support the vintners and growers that are behind a very special area. The Anniversary Celebration "Tasting Pass" is a one day pass to taste the wines and other offerings around the Suisun Valley AVA at participating locations. By buyint a ticket to the Anniversary Celebration, attendees will be able to waive the normal tasting fees at the eleven participating locations and enjoy a fun day with friends and family.

Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at the door.
Click Here to Purchase

Explore the Cheese Trail of California

California Cheese Trail - which includes CheeseTrail.org, the California Cheese Trail map and the California Cheese Trail app - promotes artisan cheesemakers and family farmers. It's the only project/website that connects people to the cheesemakers, their tours, cheesemaking classes and cheese events throughout California.

Check the map to design your own tour or pick one of various regions, find a tasting, class or cheese event near you, find cheesemaking supplies, private classes, online cheese sales, and the latest blog!

Find the Cheesemakers here.

Find many more opportunities to visit California farms, ranches and vineyards on the UC Agritourism Directory and Calendar of Events: www.calagtour.org.

Happy Holidays!

 

Posted on Monday, December 10, 2018 at 12:53 PM
Tags: agritourism (16), cheesemaking (2), holiday shopping (1), wine (7)
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture Family Food

Lemon water tasting at UC research center kicks off an 18-month citrus sensory study

What flavors do you detect in a sip of lemon water? Are there notes of sweetness, sour, off flavors or fresh citrus taste? Scientists at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center and the USDA want to know every subtle taste sensation for a research project continuing over the next 18 months.

Participants will taste the major types of citrus to confirm that treatments used to eliminate pests in overseas shipments don't have an impact on fruit enjoyment. Lemon tasting will be followed by mandarins, navel and Valencia oranges, and grapefruit.

USDA plant physiologist David Oberland, left, and UC Cooperative Extension subtropical specialist Mary Lu Arpaia prepare lemons for tasting in the sensory laboratory.

“This work is critical for the citrus industry,” said Mary Lu Arpaia, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in subtropical fruit. “A huge amount of California citrus is exported, but if there are quarantined pests in the shipment, that triggers treatments with a fumigant.”

In the past, importers treated citrus with methyl bromide. However, the pesticide has been phased out because it depletes the ozone layer. An alternative fumigant, phosphine, kills the insects, but scientists don't yet know what impact the chemical will have on the fruit.

“We're hoping there's no taste difference,” Arpaia said. “But we don't know. That's why we're doing the testing.”

USDA technician Paul Neipp presents a tray for lemon water tasting in one of the sensory lab booths.

USDA plant physiologist David Obenland, based at the USDA office across the street from Kearney in Parlier, is working with Arpaia to conduct the study at Kearney's sensory laboratory. The 1,100-square-foot laboratory features neutral white paint and broad-spectrum lighting; the ventilation system minimizes distracting odors. Six tasting booths each have small windows that open to the kitchen area, where samples are prepared.

“Previous research has resolved residue issues and determined phosphine is effective in killing the pests,” Obenland said. “But they didn't fully determine whether the process would hurt the fruit.”

The current project compares fruit treated with methyl bromide, phosphine and a cold temperature protocol in which the fruit is held just above freezing for three weeks. In addition to tasting the fruit, volunteers evaluate the fruit's appearance.

The visual component of the testing session allows scientists to determine whether subtle impacts of treatment will deter buyers from selecting the fruit.

“People buy with their eyes,” Arpaia said. “We're asking our participants to compare the fruit visually to see if they detect any differences.”

The research is funded by the California Citrus Quality Council through a grant from the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service.

Posted on Friday, December 7, 2018 at 8:06 AM
Tags: citrus (12), Mary Lu Arpaia (6)
Focus Area Tags: Food

Honey: Nothing short of miraculous

A taste of honey: dipping fingers into the honeycomb. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
“Honey, please pass the honey!”

That simple request, prefaced with a term of endearment for good measure, means there's honey on the table.

And well there should be. As the daughter, granddaughter and great-great granddaughter (and beyond) of beekeepers, I grew up with honey on the table. (And on my fingers, face and clothes.)

My favorite then was clover honey from the lush meadows and fields of our 300-acre farm in southwest Washington. My favorite now is Northern California yellow starthistle honey, derived from the blossoms of that highly invasive weed, Centaurea solstitialis, which farmers hate (and rightfully so) and beekeepers love.

“Almost every honey has its own unique flavor-- even when it is the same varietal,” says Amina Harris, director of the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center. “There are characteristics we learn to look for, but even within that variety, the honey will differ from each area collected. For instance: avocado honey is known for being very dark amber with a flavor reminiscent of molasses, licorice or anise. However, once you start tasting a selection, some will taste like blackstrap molasses and very black licorice. Others will have almost a fruity flavor like dried figs or prunes. Most folks can't tell the difference – and then there are the honey nerds, like me!”

A beekeeper at UC Davis holds a frame of honey. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

“My favorite all-around honey is one I keep returning to. I love sweet clover from the High Plains with its cinnamon hit —the spicy characteristic is just something I love,” Harris said. “My favorite ‘shock honey' is coriander. Collected near Yuba City, this seed crop gives us a honey that is like walking through a spice bazaar with hints of cardamom, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, coriander and — chocolate.”

The UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center, located in the Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science on Old Davis Road, periodically offers courses on the sensory evaluation of honey, as well as honey tastings. Next up: the center will host free honey tastings at its home base during the 105th Annual Campuswide Picnic Day on April 13, and at the California Honey Festival in downtown Woodland on May 4. Another popular honey tasting: California Extension apiculturist Elina Lastro Niño, based in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, hosts a honey tasting at Briggs Hall during the annual Picnic Day.

There's more to honey than meets the eye — or the palate. The Honey and Pollination Center recently hosted a three-day Sensory Evaluation of Honey Certificate Course last October, using “sensory evaluation tools and methods to educate participants in the nuances of varietal honey,” Harris said. Northern California public radio station KQED spotlighted the course on its “Taste This” program.

And we owe it all to honey bees.

Pollination ecologist Stephen Buchmann of the University of Arizona (who received his doctorate in entomology from UC Davis, studying with native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp), writes in his book, Honey Bees: Letters from the Hive, that each worker bee “may make four to ten or so flights from the nest each day, visiting hundreds or many thousands of flowers to collect nectar and pollen. During her lifetime, a worker bee may flown 35,000 to 55,000 miles collecting food for her and her nest mates. One pound of honey stored in the comb can represent 200,000 miles of combined bee flights and nectar from as many as five million flowers.”

Take a 16-ounce jar of honey at the supermarket. That represents “the efforts of tens of thousands of bees flying a total of 112,000 miles to forage nectar from about 4.5 million flowers,” writes Buchmann.

Of course, we primarily appreciate honey bees for their pollination services (one-third of the food we eat is pollinated by bees) but honey is more than just an after thought.

It's been described as “liquid gold,” “the nectar of the gods” and “the soul of a field of flowers.” Frankly, it's nothing short of miraculous.

And well it should be.

A honey bee sips honey from honeycomb. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
A honey bee sips honey from honeycomb. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

A honey bee sips honey from honeycomb. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

A honey bee sips nectar from a lavender blossom. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
A honey bee sips nectar from a lavender blossom. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

A honey bee sips nectar from a lavender blossom. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Trying leafy greens from a sweet potato plant

This time of year, it can be hard to resist the pull of sweet potatoes — roasted, mashed with butter, and topped with a combination of delectable treats from maple syrup to pecans to marshmallows. But did you know that the green leaves of the sweet potato plant also have the potential to be a tasty, nutritious food?

In Ethiopia, where sweet potatoes can be a staple crop, UC Davis graduate student Lauren Howe recently helped farmers taste test the leaves and consider this familiar crop in a new culinary light.

Watch a video to learn how to prepare sweet potato leaves:

The leaves of this drought-tolerant plant offer farming households there an alternative — and nutritious — food in the lean season, while they are waiting for its starchy, tuberous roots to be ready to eat. Introducing sweet potato leaves as a food option is intended to help farmers better diversify their families' diets, to include a wider variety of vegetables in addition to staple foods, especially during the dry season.

Lauren shared her experiences in Ethiopia on the Agrilinks website, where she recently won the Agrilinks Young Scholars blog contest with her writing and a short video from the field.

From right, Lauren Howe of UC Davis and Tesfaye Kassa of SACE interview farmers about how they currently manage sweet potato crops on their farms.

Boots on the ground with sweet potato farmers in Ethiopia

Lauren traveled to Ethiopia this summer to work with an organization called Send A Cow Ethiopia (SACE), on a Trellis Fund project. As part of the Horticulture Innovation Lab, each Trellis Fund project connects an organization in a developing country with a grad student from a U.S. university, to work together to benefit local farmers, while building the capacity of both the local organization and the student.

In Ethiopia, SACE helped Lauren better understand local contexts by connecting her with farming households to interview about their current farming practices and the role of sweet potatoes in their diets.

Later they traveled to meet with a group of about 25 farmers in the Ukara community to harvest leaves, cook together and discuss their perceptions of the leaves as a vegetable option.

“We are producing a huge amount of sweet potato per year," explained Feleke Lera, a son of farmers in Ukara. "But before, we had no knowledge about the leaves.”
 
Lauren harvests sweet potato leaves with farmers in Ukara.
 
In Ukara, the group prepared the sweet potato leaves three different ways – sauteed, cooked with corn or maize flour in a dish called fosese, and in a salad.
 

Reflecting on taste tests, new foods, and rural communities

After preparing and tasting the sweet potato leaves, the group in Ukara discussed which dish they preferred, whether they would adopt this new practice of eating sweet potato leaves, how this practice might affect their forage supply to feed their livestock, and what their friends and family members might think of this new food. 
 
"I deeply appreciated how food is truly a universal language and the preparation, cooking and act of eating itself are relatable across cultures," Lauren wrote in her blog post.
 

Lauren's own passion for food and witnessing how food can help build community is an important part of her reflection on this experience:

"This project is about creating tasty dishes to persuade people about the nutritional benefits of a new ingredient. It is gathering families, friends and neighbors to sit down to a communal meal (already a strong Ethiopian practice), breaking bread together, sharing stories, experiences and hopes for the future."

For more, go read the rest of Lauren's blog post and check out her short video too.

Lauren at a taste test in another community called Gurumo Koysha, where farmers overwhelmingly preferred the sautéed sweet potato leaves to the sautéed kale. The activity was intended to be a blind taste test, but Lauren reported that keeping the dishes secret was more difficult to do than originally planned.

Background and related international agricultural research

Lauren's experience with a Trellis Fund project in Ethiopia was supported by the Horticulture Innovation Lab, a research program led by Elizabeth Mitcham of the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences, with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development. With a focus on fruit and vegetable innovation, the Horticulture Innovation Lab seeks to empower smallholder farmers in developing countries to earn more income and better nourish their communities — as part of the U.S. government's global Feed the Future initiative.

Past research from the Horticulture Innovation Lab has focused on other leafy greens, specifically African indigenous vegetables, and also on sweet potatoes themselves (orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, that is). Though the program has not done in-depth research on sweet potato leaves for human consumption beyond this small Trellis Fund project, you can find more information about eating sweet potato leaves and tips in this bulletin from the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension, and a wealth of information about sweet potato farming and gardening from the University of California Vegetable Research and Information Center. 

Related Food Blog posts:

 

Sweet potato leaves in Ethiopia - Horticulture Innovation Lab photo by Lauren Howe/UC Davis
Sweet potato leaves in Ethiopia - Horticulture Innovation Lab photo by Lauren Howe/UC Davis

close-up on sweetpotato leaves, stems and plant

Posted on Monday, November 19, 2018 at 9:02 AM
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture Health Innovation

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