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Grant High School grows food and leadership

Recently, UC’s Agricultural Sustainability Institute gave me the opportunity to visit Grant Union High School in Sacramento to learn about their GEO Environmental and Design Academy, which includes a gardening and cooking program.

The school is in an economically challenged area, and about half the students are English language learners.

Teacher Ann Marie Kennedy said something interesting about the students enrolled in the program: “They are disconnected from agriculture, but they are not disconnected from food.”

The Grant garden is essentially a shared school and community garden, which I believe is one of the best models for school garden sustainability. Community gardeners have individual plots, but assist in the school garden areas. Some of the community gardeners have children or grandchildren enrolled at Grant, but others are connected to the school simply through their love of gardening and the opportunity to cultivate food.

During our visit, we worked alongside the students to harvest, wash and chop vegetables to make chicken and vegetable chow mein and garden-fresh salad for lunch. We also sampled Grant’s salsa, which is sold commercially, providing a real-life business incubator for seniors in the program.

The lunch was simple ... and simply amazing. Not only the food, but the chance to speak with students and learn about how the program has influenced their lives. The students said they are eating more fruits and vegetables and bringing the practice home to their families.

I ended my visit with enormous gratitude for the work of Grant Union High staff and profound awe for the students. I have a great deal of confidence in a future that includes their leadership.

But I also left with the idea that this exceptional program should not be the exception, but rather, the norm. If we are truly committed to a healthy future and a healthy nation, we need programs like this, that provide opportunities for youth engagement with soil, healthy food and mentors who will encourage their leadership abilities.

Posted on Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 7:28 AM

UC scientist says transgenic salmon is safe

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering approval of genetically engineered salmon developed by AquaBounty Technologies, a Massachusetts biotechnology company focused on improving productivity in commercial aquaculture.

Paul Olin of the California Sea Grant Extension Program says the transgenic salmon is safe for consumption and the environment.

"If we take time to learn the facts and understand the science we can all appreciate new advances in our ability to produce healthy, sustainable food with the confidence that it has been vetted by the scrutiny of the world’s best science," Olin said.

The “AquAdvantage” Atlantic salmon (AAS) has two genes that considerably hasten its growth, one from Chinook salmon and the other from ocean pout. AAS reaches market size twice as fast as traditional salmon, providing an economic benefit to farmers and enhancing the economic viability of inland operations, thereby diminishing the need for ocean pens.

AquaBounty plans to grow the hybrid fish on Prince Edward Island, ship small fish to inland recirculating production systems in Panama, harvest and process the fish, and ship food grade product back to the United States for sale. The fish for this production system would be 95 percent triploid females, as a duplicative measure to prevent reproduction. Olin said triploid crops have an extra set of genes and are widely used in agriculture including such apple varieties as Gravenstein and MacIntosh, and seedless bananas, watermelon and grapes.

Olin cited a 2008 scientific review, published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, that said GM foods had been eaten by millions of people worldwide for 15 years, with no reports of ill effects.

"New technologies to genetically improve food and animal crops are one tool to supply the additional food people will need in the future, improving human health, reducing the use of pesticides and fertilizers, and reducing the carbon footprint of animal and plant agriculture," Olin said.

AqaAdvantage Salmon
AqaAdvantage Salmon

Size comparison of an AquAdvantage® Salmon (background) vs. a non-transgenic Atlantic salmon sibling (foreground) of the same age.

Posted on Monday, November 15, 2010 at 11:19 AM

Local farms please new moms and kids

You may have noticed changes lately in some little food stores tucked into your neighborhood strip mall or main street, stores with names like "Prime Time Nutrition" or "Fiesta Nutrition." These stores are now offering enticing displays of fresh fruits and vegetables along with the infant formula, breakfast cereal, eggs, cheese and other foods that have been offered to mothers, infants and children through the WIC program since 1972.

The UC Small Farm Program and Cooperative Extension advisors in three California counties are piloting a new "Farm to WIC Program" with the stores to make sure that some of the fresh produce on the shelves comes directly from small-scale local growers, helping low-income families to participate in USDA's "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" campaign.

The mission of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is to safeguard the health of low-income women, infants and children up to age 5 who are at nutrition risk. The program provides nutritional education and vouchers for supplemental foods to qualifying families. By 2002 almost half of the infants and about one quarter of children ages 1 to 4 in the country participated. The vouchers can be redeemed at most large grocery stores, but many WIC participants prefer to shop with their vouchers at the small, privately-owned WIC-only stores that have sprung up since 2000, carrying only WIC foods and catering primarily to WIC participants.

In October 2009, the WIC program began including vouchers for fresh fruits and vegetables in the monthly allotment to all participating families. This addition meant that all WIC-authorized retailers had to begin offering a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables to their customers - no problem for traditional supermarkets, but a big change for the smaller WIC-only stores. All of a sudden they were in a new business, the produce business. The store owners now have to understand their customers' fresh produce preferences as well as safe handling of perishable products that don't arrive in the store with "sell-by" dates stamped on them.

With funding from the California Department of Food and Agriculture's Specialty Crops Block Grant program, a team of UC Cooperative Extension specialists and advisors are partnering with WIC-only stores to ease this transition.

The nutrition advisor team, led by UCCE specialist Lucia Kaiser, first conducted a survey of WIC participants at WIC clinics in Alameda, Tulare and Riverside counties to determine what crops the women would like to purchase and what qualities were most important to them in deciding what to buy. Using this information, farm advisors in each county, led by UC Small Farm Program director Shermain Hardesty, introduced local growers who could supply the selected crops in season to WIC-only store owners at stores popular with WIC participants. Soon, staff in the stores will participate in post-harvest handling training sessions led by UCCE specialist Marita Cantwell and will each receive colorful posters and handouts to help their customers select, prepare and store the fresh produce.

Lessons learned from this UC pilot project will help connect local small-scale fruit and vegetable growers with WIC retailers and keep the best local fruits and vegetables available to WIC families throughout California.

Posted on Thursday, November 11, 2010 at 1:33 PM

California can-do attitude

Whether to save money or to dine on fresher products, more Californians have been buying locally grown food and growing their own lately. They also have started home canning what they can’t eat right away. But be aware that if you put them up incorrectly, those garden goodies can be deadly.

I’m no domestic goddess so I learned a lot about home canning recently while watching Susan Algert, UC Cooperative Extension nutrition advisor for Santa Clara County, make a 2-minute video describing safe canning tips.

Meats, vegetables and any food containing meats and vegetables -- such as salsa or spaghetti sauce -- have to be pressure-canned to prevent botulism, a paralyzing illness that can kill the person who eats the contaminated food. Botulism is caused by a nerve toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. A less serious consequence of not following a scientifically tested recipe is foodborne microorganisms can survive and spoil your canned foods.

I used to wonder why people would pickle green beans or cauliflower. They seemed like odd foods to pickle. Now I understand.

If you prefer to home can low-acid vegetables such as green beans using the boiling water bath instead of a pressure canner, you must first pickle the vegetables to ensure the final acidity is too high for Clostridium botulinum to grow.

High-acid foods such as peaches naturally have a pH of 4.6 or less and contain enough acid to prevent the growth of Clostridium botulinum so they can be home canned using the boiling water bath method. However, processing times must be followed precisely to ensure that all bacteria are destroyed using a water bath canner—so, following a standard recipe is very important!

“Certain foods, such as tomatoes, pears and figs, have a pH value close to 4.6 and must have acid added to them to lower the pH enough to use the water bath method,” Algert told me. “The pH can be lowered by adding commercial lemon juice or powdered citric acid.”

She added, “You can’t use juice squeezed from a fresh lemon that you picked from your backyard tree because we don’t know exactly how acidic the juice is. Commercial lemon juice meets a standard acidity.”

Here’s a general guide to help decide which canning method to use:

Low-acid foods that must be pressure canned:

  • meats
  • seafood
  • poultry
  • dairy products
  • all vegetables
  • combination products using these foods

High-acid foods that can be canned in boiling water bath:

  • most fruits
  • properly pickled vegetables

Foods that require added lemon juice for boiling water bath canning:

  • figs
  • pears
  • tomatoes

For more information about safely canning food, visit the University of California’s Food Safety website at http://ucfoodsafety.ucdavis.edu/Consumer_Advice and the USDA National Center for Home Food Preservation website at http://www.uga.edu/nchfp.

UC also offers publications at http://ucanr.org/foodpreservation on other methods of safely preserving and storing foods, from apples to tomatoes.

Algert's home canning overview:

Posted on Wednesday, November 10, 2010 at 6:44 AM

Food Stamps are being rebranded 'CalFresh'

In an effort to break down stigma and encourage greater participation, the program formerly known as "Food Stamps" is now called "CalFresh" in California. The program adopted a new logo and a new slogan: “Better Food for Better Living.”

The name Food Stamps, used for more than 40 years, was officially retired by Congress in 2008, and the program became known nationally as "Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program," or SNAP. However, California officials determined SNAP didn't test well with focus groups.

CalFresh was designed to capture the essence of the state and its position as a world leader in agribusiness, according to a California Department of Social Services news release. In the logo, the wording is bisected by a graphic representing the healthy fruit and vegetables produced in California.

CDSS said the transition to "CalFresh" will be a slow process, with changes to forms, documents and outreach materials taking place over time.

The University of California operates a Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program, commonly known as FSNEP, in 35 California counties. FSNEP educators aim to increase the likelihood that people eligible for the federal nutrition program in California make healthy food choices and choose physically active lifestyles.

California FSNEP director David Ginsburg said FSNEP was holding out for the renaming of the California program before updating the UC program's name.

"It did not make a lot of sense to change it to align with SNAP and then again once the California name was announced," Ginsburg said.

UC-FSNEP will receive $8.1 million in federal funds this fiscal year (Oct. 1, 2010 - Sept. 30, 2011), an increase of about $1 million over last year, Ginsburg said. Last year the program reached 220,000 California recipients of federal food benefits.

More than 3 million low-income Californians receive nutrition assistance benefits in any given month, but analysts say only half of the state's residents eligible for the assistance receive it.

"CalFresh benefits are very important for so many families who are challenged with food insecurity," Ginsburg said. "By bringing forward a new image and message, hopefully those participating in CalFresh will feel more empowered and also force needed reform with the old Food Stamp program."

Posted on Monday, November 8, 2010 at 7:42 AM

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