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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

Students' olive-oil fraud buster wins international prize

The iGEM olive-oil biosensor inventors are, from left, James Lucas, Sarah Ritz, Simon Staley, Yeonju Song, Brian Tamsut and Lucas Murray. Not pictured here was team member Aaron Cohen. (Karen Higgins/UC Davis)
A student team composed of some of the best and brightest young minds at UC Davis took the grand prize last week in an international competition for the high-tech biosensor they created to detect low-grade or adulterated olive oil.

The award was presented to the Aggie inventors during the finals of the three-day global iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machines) competition in Boston. The competition, this year featuring 245 teams from Asia, Europe, Latin America and North America, challenges student teams to design and build biological systems or machines and present their inventions in the international competition.

The students had spent several months designing and building the palm-sized biosensor, which they dubbed OliView. The biosensor is equipped to quickly and easily evaluate the chemical profile of oil, providing producers, distributors, retailers and ultimately consumers with an effective, inexpensive way to ensure olive oil quality.

Verifying olive oil quality is a concern for consumers – many of whom are willing to pay higher prices for the health benefits and flavor of true, extra-virgin olive oil. And honest olive oil producers want to prevent other producers from passing off sub-par olive oil as the real deal, while retailers, distributors and producers want a quick, easy way to ensure olive oil quality.

In addition helping detect fraudulent olive oil, the students' new biosensor will also monitor for good oil that may have gone rancid with age. 

The team of undergraduate students included Lucas Murray, Brian Tamsut, James Lucas, Sarah Ritz, Aaron Cohen and Simon Staley, with Yeonju Song serving as the “shadow” or alternate team member. You can tune into Aaron Cohen's recent Nov. 6 Science Friday interview during a discussion of synthetic biology.

The full story and a brief video about the new olive-oil biosensor and this stellar team of young inventors are available at: http://news.ucdavis.edu/search/news_detail.lasso?id=11076.

Reports on olive-oil quality are available at the web site of the UC Davis Olive Center at: http://olivecenter.ucdavis.edu/research/reports.

Posted on Wednesday, November 12, 2014 at 1:17 PM
  • Author: Pat Bailey
Tags: food (36), olive oil (10), students (8)

UC Davis tomatoes provide year-round healthful eating for college students

Chef Bob Walden, right, and Arnulfo Herrera, a cook, show off roasted tomatoes at UC Davis. (photo: Gregory Urquiaga / UC Davis)
Today's dorm food is far superior to the tasteless, over-processed foods of decades past. No more mystery meat or mushy vegetables. Campus dining services across the country are providing a diversity of fresher and healthier foods, much to the delight of food-savvy students who want variety, flavor, and nutritious choices. Well... being students, they don't always make the healthiest choices, but educational programs at campus dorms are turning the tide toward more-healthful eating.

At the same time, chefs and food buyers at universities, particularly the University of California, are selecting for high-quality fruits and vegetables, produced locally and sustainably. Universities with strong food sustainability programs are rightfully proud of what they're doing to educate students about food production, health, and nutrition. UC Davis Dining Services prioritizes the purchase of locally grown food (ideally within a 50-mile radius of campus). Most University of California campuses have similar programs.

At UC Davis, fresh roma tomatoes are picked each August from the 300-acre Russell Ranch, part of the campus's Agricultural Sustainability Institute, then processed within hours by campus Dining Services to provide year-round tomato sauce for pizza, pasta, and ratatouille. All told, 10,000 pounds of tomatoes are processed during a two-week period in August. About 29 percent of the total food served in the campus's residential dining halls is from local, organic or sustainable sources.

(courtesy photo: UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute)
The tomatoes grown at Russell Ranch are part of a long-term academic research project that examines factors such as farming methods, irrigation needs, crop rotations, yield, and nutritional content. At the end of the growing season, some of the many tons of tomatoes are purchased by Dining Services at market value.

Emma Torbert, an academic coordinator at the UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute, noted, “Connecting the food system to the research is really interesting. A lot of times there is confusion about where our food is coming from. The more people are educated, the more educated decisions they can make.”

Many UC Davis faculty and staff are so impressed with the food choices at the dorms that they purchase individual meal tickets and enjoy lunches made with the campus-grown tomatoes, herbs, and other vegetables, all of which are part of the daily food array. Public dinners are also offered periodically at the dorms so that community members can sit amongst students to taste and learn about the sustainability programs in the dorms.

Additional Information:

  • Video: Farm to Table, UC Davis Tomatoes; 2010
  • Slide show of this year's UC Davis tomato harvesting and processing system; 2014
  • Sustainable Foodservice Progress Report 2014, UC Davis Dining Services
  • Two videos of UC Davis students who work at the Student Farm to produce food, including one on tomato sauce production
  • “Tomatoes: Safe methods to store, preserve, and enjoy.” UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, free publication
Posted on Wednesday, August 27, 2014 at 11:11 AM

The fine art of spitting: Allowing underage students to taste alcohol

Wine samples ready for tasting at UC Davis. (photo: Ann Filmer / UC Davis)
California's drinking age of 21 prohibits many undergraduate students from learning critical skills early in their academic careers — sensory skills that they will need when they move on to jobs in the multimillion-dollar winemaking, brewing, and food industries.

Not until students turn 21 can they taste the wine and beer they make and learn to assess its sensory quality. Learning the characteristics of a wide assortment of good (and not-so-good) wines and beers is an important component of winemaking and brewing. Having to wait until their junior or senior year to learn these skills is a disadvantage for these students.

Legislation (AB 1989) has been proposed by California Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro (D-North Coast) that will allow students, ages 18 to 21, enrolled in winemaking and brewery science programs to taste alcoholic beverages in qualified academic institutions. The students can taste, but not consume — which means they must learn the professional practice of spitting during the tasting process.

Professor Andrew Waterhouse, an enologist in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis, notes that tasting is critical to the students' education.

“Winemakers taste wine daily during harvest to quickly make critical decisions as the winemaking is underway,” Waterhouse said. “Our students need to start learning this skill here, with our guidance. And, they also have to get over the embarrassment of spitting — after every taste.”

Chik Brenneman, the UC Davis winemaker, said that the bill, if passed, “will allow students to move on to the sensory program a lot sooner, before they've finished most of their winemaking classes. Earlier sensory training will help them when they go to work in the industry.”

A student, over age 21, testing wine at UC Davis. (photo: John Stumbos / UC Davis)
Waterhouse said in an interview with NBC Bay Area, “If you don't have the experience of what wine tastes like as it's being made, then you're completely missing a critical skill, which you then have to learn on the job.”

If the legislation passes, it will benefit enology and brewing students at UC Davis, which is the only University of California campus to offer undergraduate degrees in viticulture and enology and in brewing science (an option within the food science major).

While parents of college students may worry that the bill will open the door to widespread drinking, Waterhouse and Brenneman both noted that the focus of the bill is so narrow that its impact will benefit a limited number of students, and that it's unlikely to lead to excessive drinking. They say that the over-21 students routinely spit what they're tasting in a standard industry manner, and that “drinking” in class is not a problem.

With passage of this bill, which is backed by the University of California, the state will join 12 other states that have allowed this educational exemption for students.

Read more:

Posted on Tuesday, March 18, 2014 at 8:38 AM
Tags: alcohol (4), Andrew Waterhouse (2), beer (5), brewing (2), Chik Brenneman (1), enology (1), students (8), UC Davis (35), viticulture (1), wine (7)

Students play key role in building community around sustainable food systems

On an unusually cool July morning at the UC Davis Student Farm, students are harvesting tomatoes and other produce for the farm’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) membership program. The CSA baskets are pre-sold to members of the campus community and are among the ways students participate in the campus food system.

“It’s more than a way to sell food. It builds community, and that’s a powerful thing for students to learn,” said Raoul Adamchak, who coordinates the CSA and the Market Garden where the produce is grown.

Over the years, those involved in UC campuses’ food systems have garnered powerful lessons from students as well, resulting in organic gardens, student farms and increasingly sustainable food options at dining halls. These student-initiated components of campus food systems continue to nurture student opportunities to learn and get involved.

While the Student Farm has run its CSA for 16 years, the farm has been a part of the campus food system for 30 years by selling fresh organic produce to the UC Davis Coffee House, which is run by Associated Students, UC Davis. Most recently, it began selling produce to Sodexo-run UC Davis Dining Services – further diversifying its customer base.

“When Dining Services initially wanted to buy from us, we were hesitant,” said Mark Van Horn, director of the Student Farm. “Our CSA was well established and is still our highest grossing market. We’re at the upper limits of production and didn’t think we could grow more without negatively effecting education – the primary purpose of the farm. What changed our minds is that we realized our relationship with them is about education as well as production. We’re collaborating with Dining Services to educate students – more students than ever – about the entire food system.”

Dining Services also serves a key audience – incoming undergraduates and potential interns for the Student Farm, Russell Ranch at UC Davis and other programs that contribute to the campus food system.

“We’re trying to engage students in the food system so they can learn about where their food comes from and what’s in it,” said Dani Lee, UC Davis University Dining Services’ sustainability manager.

Dining Services labels the origin of campus-produced food. It regularly hosts outreach events, features displays about and organizes tours of the Student Farm, Russell Ranch and other campus-based partners. It has also established internships for students interested in waste reduction, gardening and sourcing food more locally.

Lee and Van Horn hope these efforts will help inspire students to learn more.

“We’re seeing more interest from students today than ever before,” Van Horn said. “I attribute it to a bigger cultural awakening catalyzed by folks like Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser. They figured out that if you talk about agriculture, the environment and the whole food system just as ‘food,’ it’s more interesting. Students are coming in with more knowledge and commitment to these issues than ever before. Encouraging them to get actively involved in the food system is a great way to nurture what students years ago began when they founded the Student Farm, started the Coffee House, and got University of California administrators to commit to meeting a list of sustainability criteria by 2020.”

UC Davis Dining Services already exceeds the UC goal of 20 percent sustainably produced food by 2020, but it isn’t stopping there.

“We’re constantly working on sourcing more products locally,” Lee said.

Lauren Cockrell, a fourth-year UC Davis student majoring in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems is pleased with the trajectory and believes ensuring student involvement in the effort to build a more sustainable food system is key.

“I’d like the next step to be an independent, entirely student-run food retail business that, at its core, values sustainability,” she said.

Posted on Friday, July 20, 2012 at 9:02 AM
  • Author: Eve Hightower

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