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Summon us to service

For more than a hundred years, gardening has been linked to service in American communities.  Reformers used school and community gardens to improve aspects of urban life, to educate children, to feed the hungry, to provide training to those facing economic challenges. Today, the University of California models service through gardening via its Master Gardener Program, which fields thousands of highly trained gardens who provide support for school, home and community gardens across the state.

Our nation has many needs right now. Families are economically insecure.  (This is an understatement). Communities are food-insecure. Obesity is epidemic; the figures on childhood obesity are particularly disturbing. We have a tenuous connection with the land and a poor understanding of our food system. Environmental concerns - and declining oil supplies - dictate a need to recreate more sustainable and local food systems. Despite the bad news, Americans have proven that they are hungry for change, eager to re-engage with their neighbors, their communities and their nation.

A revival of the successful national gardening programs (Victory Gardens) of the past is clearly occurring. Gardening and the local food movement are hot topics. And consider the USDA’s Peoples Garden Initiative (PGI), which was launched in 2009, on the biennial of Abraham Lincoln's birthday. (This was fitting: President Lincoln created the USDA and felt strongly that Americans needed to know how to cultivate land - even small parcels - to keep freedom secure).  

The PGI is making good progress across the nation: there are now Peoples Gardens in every state. If encouraged and supported by us, the PGI could help in myriad ways. The infrastructure for the program is already in place. The educational materials that support school, home and community gardens are available through existing government agencies and private organizations. And, as I suggested to Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack via the Huffington Post, thousands of highly-trained volunteer Master Gardeners (who serve under the USDA’s umbrella, through land grant institutions) can be called upon to share their expertise with school, home and community gardeners.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: all President Obama needs to do is ask. Help us once again engage Americans in service to nation through gardening. Summon us to service. Come out to your garden, admit to us that that we’re experiencing rough times, but tell us that we can make a difference by acting locally - through the simple act of gardening. Encourage those who can to plant a garden to do it. Summon us to service: Ask us to plant for our families and our communities, to grow a row for the hungry, to share any extra produce with food banks.

Mr. President, we’re hungry for change (and a shameful number of Americans are just plain hungry).  Sometimes to move forward, we must look back for inspiration. Certainly, the Victory Gardens of the past provide a wonderful example of what ordinary citizens can accomplish on the home front to respond to challenges in the larger world. The revival of a national Victory Garden campaign can provide the kind of change we can dig into, some good news we can all use right now.

I can’t miraculously create millions of jobs, or clean up the oil currently in the Gulf, but I can facilitate the small miracle of growing and providing fresh produce to my family, and perhaps sharing it with those who are experiencing hunger in my community. Please, Mr. President: Summon us to service.

Posted on Monday, August 9, 2010 at 9:58 AM

Where has all the flavor gone?

Do you remember when store-bought produce was succulent every time you took a bite? Then you’re old – well, at least you’re not a kid. Today’s youth in America have a different experience with store-bought fruits and vegetables – sometimes they’re yummy and juicy, sometimes they taste like chalk.

What’s a mother to do?



"It’s a problem, because often you have only one window of opportunity to introduce a new fruit or vegetable to your child,” says Beth Mitcham, UC Cooperative Extension (CE) specialist with the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences, director of the UC Davis Postharvest Technology Center and concerned mother. “And if the food doesn’t taste good, they aren’t going to like it.”

And if they don’t like it, they’re not going to eat it. That’s how it is for all of us, but new research by Mitcham and a broad group of experts may remedy the situation. Mitcham and her team recently received a nearly $6 million grant from the USDA for a project designed to improve the flavor quality of fruits and vegetables available to U.S. consumers and thereby increase their consumption.

A collaboration between UC Davis and the University of Florida, the project is co-directed by Mitcham and Jeff Brecht from the UF along with nearly 30 faculty members between the two institutions including CE Specialists Marita Cantwell, Trevor Suslow and Carlos Crisosto and Assistant Professor Florence Negre-Zakharov from the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences. Other UC Davis faculty represent Agriculture and Resource Economics, Biological and Agricultural Engineering, Food Science and Technology, Viticulture and Enology and Public Health Sciences. More than twenty-five stakeholders from the produce industry are also on board.

As a postharvest technology specialist, Mitcham knows full well the challenges growers, packers and shippers face in getting crops from the field to the market in a condition shoppers will buy.

“Experience shows produce buyers rarely reject produce because it’s under-ripe,” Mitcham says. “But they will reject it if there is any bruising or decay.”

Most of us understand the problem – in broad strokes, at least. Take a tomato, for example. If we have the time, space and climate to grow them ourselves, the shelf life of our homegrown tomatoes would be the time it takes to pick one from the vine, walk into the house and slice it open. (Or the time it takes to bite into it right there in the yard. Yum.) If we’re harvesting tomatoes to deliver to a friend some distance away, we might want to pick them when they’re a little less ripe so they won’t get squished along the way.

Imagine, then, the challenge growers, shippers and retailers face delivering tomatoes to customers all across the globe year-round. Since shoppers eschew bruised produce, growers have to harvest them before they’re fully ripe, before their flavor has reached its full potential.

The team is looking at how they can alter that equation so our produce is more flavorful and still safe and economically viable for the industry. Their research will examine each step in the post-harvest chain asking questions like these:

  • Can we slow the ripening process, so it can be picked later and still be fresh when it reaches the market? Is there new technology – in sorting, packing, shipping or anything else - that can help? How is flavor enhanced and inhibited during shipping and storing?

  • If produce was riper during postharvest handling, would that affect our food safety risk? Would more pathogens survive?

  • If produce was consistently flavorful, would consumers buy more?

“I think we can do a better job developing varieties with more flavor and improving postharvest performance so consumers can count on flavorful fruits an vegetables,” Mitcham says. “And I think this project will help.”

More information on this flavor project can be found in The Spring 2010 Leaflet.

Posted on Friday, August 6, 2010 at 8:27 AM

Depressed people eat more chocolate

Depressing news for those who love chocolate. A recent study published by UC Davis and UC San Diego medical scientists in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that consumption of the delicacy appears to be associated with depression.

The scientists examined the relationship between chocolate and mood among 931 women and men who were not using antidepressants. Their surprising conclusion: Participants who screened positive for possible depression ate an average of 8.4 servings of chocolate per month; those who weren't depressed ate on average 5.4 servings per month.

People who reflected major depression ate an average of 11.8 servings per month. What does that say about people like me who eat 30 or more servings of chocolate every month? It is depressing to contemplate.

The study's authors offered some possible explanations for the seeming correlation of chocolate consumption with depression:
  • Depression could stimulate chocolate cravings as 'self-treatment'
  • Depression may stimulate chocolate cravings for other reasons
  • Chocolate could contribute to depressed mood
  • Inflammation could drive both depression and chocolate cravings
"Future studies are required to elucidate the foundation of the association and to determine whether chocolate has a role in depression, as cause or cure," the authors conclude.

If you are looking for some good news associated with chocolate consumption, go to the UC ANR website Feeling Fine Online and view the 15-minute video of UC Davis nutrition professor Carl Keen explaining the health benefits chocolate.

According to Keen, a diet high in flavanols, such as those in chocolate, can reduce inflammatory conditions associated with cardio vascular disease, vasoconstriction and the risk of forming a blood clot.

A new study indicates that flavanols may increase a population of certain cells in the blood that scientists think help repair the inner walls of blood vessels, improving blood flow and potentially lowering blood pressure. This suggests that, in the future, isolated flavanols or flavanol-rich foods might be useful in preventing or possibly even treating coronary artery disease. For more information, read the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences story Flavanol-rich foods may help heart disease patients, study suggests.

(Ann King Filmer contributed to this story.)

iStockphoto
iStockphoto

Posted on Wednesday, August 4, 2010 at 6:39 AM

Preserving summer's bounty

As we move through the summer months, backyard gardeners everywhere are faced with the questions, "What do I do with all of these [insert vegetable or fruit here]?" followed by, "What was I thinking last spring when I planted all of this?"

To the rescue is a series of free, downloadable publications from the ANR Catalog. I've always noticed that these publications move to the top of our download charts each summer, so this year I decided to try one of the recipes.

This comes from the category, "What do I do with all of these peppers?" and is actually called Peppers: Safe Methods to Store, Preserve, and Enjoy.  I had some dried apricots in the pantry, so I opted for the Apricot Pepper Jelly.

The ingredients are simple enough, dried apricots, peppers, apple cider vinegar, sugar and pectin.


A lot of people think making jam is complicated and requires special equipment. It's actually quite easy. If you can read and follow directions, and have good attention to keeping things clean, making preserves is a snap. The only piece of special equipment I have purchased for canning is a jar lifter. And of course you need the jars, lids and bands. Note that while the jars and bands can be used over and over, you cannot safely re-use the lids.


I wanted my jelly to have a little extra kick, so I substituted habanero for the jalapeño called for in the recipe. 

When handling hot peppers, always wear rubber gloves!


After soaking the dried apricots in hot water, they are drained, then added with the peppers and the vinegar to a food processor.


This looks like it needs a couple more pulses.

Then into the saucepan it goes, along with the sugar and pectin as directed. The recipe calls for food coloring, but since that is only for appearance, I left it out.

Less than 10 minutes later, the mixture is ready to ladle into sterilized jars.


Purists probably would not call this a jelly, as it contains small bits of the apricots and peppers. 

Once all the jars are filled and capped, into the waterbath they go. The recipe contains a chart of processing times based on altitude; mine is a short 10 minutes.



After the proper processing time, lift the jars out of the waterbath. Handle them carefully with the jar lifter, as they are very hot. After a few minutes out of the hot water, you will hear the ping! ping! ping! of success as the vacuum seal is made.



An initial taste test before processing revealed a piquant flavor, so I'm going to let the flavors settle in and mellow for a couple of weeks before use. I think it will taste great with goat cheese on crackers as an appetizer, or as a glaze on baked chicken.

Also in this series are similar publications for tomatoes, cantaloupe, strawberries, garlic, oranges and apples.
Posted on Monday, August 2, 2010 at 3:03 PM

Victory Gardens: Join the garden revolution

Rose Hayden-Smith, Ventura County Cooperative Extension director and U.S. historian is passionate about the power and possibilities inherent in gardening. She uses her extensive knowledge of homefront war efforts to help influence public policy in regards to local food systems.

Earlier this year Dr. Hayden-Smith gave a lecture, Victory Gardens: Join the Garden Revolution, at the San Diego Natural History Museum about this topic.

More about the lecture.

At no point in our lifetimes has the interest in gardening, urban agriculture, and local food systems been so intense. It’s coming from all fronts—economic need, challenges presented by climate change, community-development needs, health and nutrition, food security, reconnecting youth with land, changing understandings of how we use space in urban areas, and a growing desire of Americans for civic engagement and participatory democracy. The past has the ability to inform the present. Review historical case studies, learn about current national policies and models, and discover the future work needed to sustain the Victory Garden model as part of the overall local food movement. Also, learn about urban agriculture and how the local food-systems movement is addressing a wide range of challenges facing Americans today.

The presentation has been archived on our website. The presentation begins approximately six minutes into the video. In addition to the inspiring message, many sources for further reading and a way to connect to the movement are available towards the end.

Learn more about victory and community gardens on Ventura County Cooperative Extension's previous related posts.

 

Posted on Friday, July 30, 2010 at 2:26 PM
  • Author: Chris M. Webb

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