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Lunch ladies deserve the nation's support

The lunch lady at Cabrillo Middle School in Ventura, Calif., delivered the best commencement speech I’ve ever heard. In mid-June, Rita Pisani, whose passion is nourishing the bodies and spirits of people by preparing and serving them good food, spoke to more than 800 eighth-grade graduates and the well over 1,000 people who came to cheer them on.

Having a lunch lady be the featured speaker at an eighth-grade promotion might raise the eyebrows of some, but for this school and this school district, it makes sense. Cabrillo is part of the Ventura Unified School District, which operates farm-to-school salad bar programs at 17 campuses, and has gained national attention as an early adopter of farm-to-school and innovative nutrition programs. The farm-to-school program is part of the larger Healthy Schools Program, which also provides nutrition education and support for school gardens.

The choice of Rita Pisani as the person to deliver the parting words of wisdom to teens embarking on their high school journey also made a lot of sense in terms of a national context. With a White House supporting good food, gardening and obesity prevention initiatives, with the USDA sponsoring its People’s Garden Initiative, with farm-to-school and other good food advocates challenging the status quo with the school lunch program, it makes sense that someone like Mrs. Pisani – who has dedicated her life to feeding people, especially kids – should be heard. Food, after all – especially good food – is central to the health and well being of our youth and central to our success and security as a nation in the future.

Mrs. Pisani told a compelling story about a young girl. Born in wartime Italy, this girl’s hearing was severely damaged by bombing raids that occurred when she was very young.  (The girl’s hearing loss was not fully diagnosed until she was 25; it was determined to be 80 percent in both ears, and she had surgery and was given hearing aids). Knowing that being “different” might result in limited opportunities for her daughter, the girl’s mother taught her how to read lips, analyze facial and eye expressions, and study gestures. As an eighth-grader the girl immigrated to the United States and was immersed in English-only classes, even though she spoke only Italian. A dedicated teacher spent two hours a day helping the girl learn English. The surprise ending? That girl was Rita Pisani, the lunch lady.

Mrs. Pisani shared her belief that this is exactly the time in life when these young people will have to make decisions, particularly about the kind of people they will be. And they are of an age where they will have to live with their choices. (And one choice she strongly encouraged them to make? Don’t cut in line!).

Some of the most important choices will center on how these teens choose to care for and nourish their bodies. As citizens and taxpayers, it’s in our best interest to make sure that good food choices in public schools are the norm, not the exception.

Lawmakers are taking action on the issue of childhood nutrition. Before its August recess, the Senate passed S3307 (the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act), which would invest $4.5 billion into child nutrition.  The clincher? It offset the proposed increase to childhood nutrition programs by suggesting a $2.2 billion reduction in the SNAP (formerly Food Stamps) program, where need is growing due to the nation’s dire economic situation. Over the summer, the House Education and Labor Committee passed HR 5504 (Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act), which would invest $8 billion in childhood nutrition; however, the bill is stalled, because funds to pay for this have not been located.

The Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization Act, a major omnibus bill, includes numerous components, and is also stalled in Congress. It is renewed on a five-year cycle; Congress should have renewed it in 2009, but the national dialog about health care delayed discussion and passage. The bill has been extended until Sept. 30, 2010.  It encompasses the National School Lunch Program; the School Breakfast Program; the Child and Adult Care Food Program; the Summer Food Service Program; Women, Infants and Children (WIC), including, the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program; the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program; and the Special Milk Program. Because the Act is so large and comprehensive, it’s important for citizens to learn more about it and its components.  Information is available at

All of the legislation described above affects children and lunch ladies across the nation, lunch ladies like Mrs. Pisani. I have considered Mrs. Pisani’s words over and over the last few months. As she concluded her remarks, she told Cabrillo students, “I love to cook for people and serve them food. This is my passion. I have done it as a head chef, restaurant owner and caterer most of my life. This is why now I am happy to be your lunch lady.” Cabrillo’s principal, Glory Page, made an important observation about Mrs. Pisani: “She serves food, but more importantly, she serves kids.”

Lunch ladies do serve kids, in all sorts of ways. I loved my lunch lady, Mrs. Ketchell, who helped us work through challenges and life problems by engaging us to work alongside her in the cafeteria at Joshua Elementary School. The privilege of working in the cafeteria was reserved for older students. We couldn’t wait for our week to help prepare and serve food, and clean the cafeteria after lunch. It connected us to caring adults, it instilled in us a work ethic, it honored the collaborative and community nature of food preparation and eating, it enabled us to serve other students and it connected us to our food.

Times have changed, but the hearts of lunch ladies haven’t.  It’s up to us to make it possible for them to even more effectively serve kids by giving them the money they need to serve those kids good food. The choice of commencement speaker couldn’t have been better or more relevant to this national moment. Thank you, Mrs. Pisani, for great lunches and great lessons.

Posted on Wednesday, September 15, 2010 at 6:42 AM

Good food for all: L.A. tackles food policies

With a population of more than 10 million residents, Los Angeles County faces enormous challenges related to poverty and hunger. Over a million L.A. County residents face hunger or food insecurity every day, according to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. A Sept. 6 Los Angeles Times article detailed the problems faced by local food pantries, as they struggle to cope with a demand for food that’s risen by 48 percent in just two years. At the same time, with cheap fast food, and limited access to affordable healthy food, childhood obesity is an increasingly critical problem. Forty percent of middle-school age children in Los Angeles County are now classified as overweight or obese.

Local elected officials are embarking on an effort to more systematically address these issues. Last fall, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa convened a group of experts, bringing together community organizers, restauranteurs, public health experts, employers, farmers, urban gardeners and others to form the Los Angeles Food Policy Task Force. This was a short-term effort to gather information and make recommendations to the mayor and decision makers. The task force recently released a report, “The Good Food for All Agenda: Creating a New Regional Food System for Los Angeles,” outlining an ambitious plan for improving access to healthy food in Los Angeles.

The task force defined “good food” as food that is healthy, affordable, fair (meaning that all participants in the food supply chain receive fair compensation) and produced sustainably, using principles of environmental stewardship.

Some of the task force's recommendations were:

  • Develop a regional food hub, which can coordinate supply and demand for local, sustainable food. (Farms in several counties were included in the definition of “local” for the Los Angeles area).
  • Encourage school districts to procure sustainable, local food and provide children with higher quality lunches.
  • Promote and improve participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program.
  • Facilitate neighborhood food production by streamlining permits for community gardens, and expanding joint use agreements where schools offer their land for community gardens.
  • Start an ongoing regional food policy council, which will include both city and county decision makers and community leaders.

While Los Angeles is just one of a number of major metropolitan areas to form a task force of this nature, it’s exciting to see the state (and nation’s) most populous county addressing food policy issues. Although Los Angeles County has a relatively small number of farms, neighboring counties, including Ventura, still have significant commercial agriculture. Policies like those recommended by the L.A. Task Force not only improve choices and healthy options for consumers, they can also lead to new markets for local farmers.

UC ANR programs, such as UC Cooperative Extension in Los Angeles County, offer research-based expertise in urban gardening, nutrition education, sustainable food production and more, and serve as a resource for local policymakers and residents working to improve food access. To learn more about the L.A. Food Policy Task Force and read the Good Food for All Agenda, see

Improving access to local produce is part of the
Improving access to local produce is part of the "Good Food For All" Agenda.

Posted on Monday, September 13, 2010 at 6:27 AM

Organic strawberries may be more nutritious and longer lasting

While numerous studies have shown that organically grown foods contain fewer pesticide residues, there has been little convincing scientific evidence that organic crops taste better or are more nutritious.

Now a two-year evaluation of California strawberries has found that organic strawberries, while lower in phosphorus and potassium, had significantly higher “antioxidant activity and concentrations of ascorbic acid [vitamin C] and phenolic compounds, longer shelf life, greater dry matter, and for ‘Diamante’, better taste and appearance” than conventionally grown berries.

The study has been getting a lot of media attention, including coverage in the L.A. Times, Seattle Times and National Public Radio.

Published in the September 2010 issue of PLoS ONE, an open-access, peer-reviewed journal, the study looked at 13 pairs of commercial organic and conventional strawberry agroecosystems. The fields were all in the Watsonville area, where 40 percent of California strawberries are produced. All of the paired farms had been in production at least five years and had comparable soil types. The researchers collected multiple samples in 2004 and 2005, and evaluated the strawberries for minerals, shelf life and phytochemicals. A sensory panel compared the organoleptic properties of three different varieties of fruit.

Regarding post-harvest durability, the organic berries — despite no fungicide applications — had significantly less gray mold and significantly less loss of fresh weight two days after harvest than conventional berries.

“These results indicated that the organic strawberries have a longer shelf life than conventional strawberries because of slower rotting and dehydration, perhaps due to augmentation of cuticle and epidermal cell walls,” the authors wrote.

Mark Bolda, UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor for strawberries in Santa Cruz County, said there are a number of variables that could account for a reduction in gray mold infestation.

“For example, organic plants are smaller in size, have a smaller canopy and consequently are drier because of more air circulation,” Bolda said. “Flowers and fruit subsequently present a drier and less appealing host for this fungus.”

Not surprisingly, the study found that “soils on the organic farms had significantly more carbon and nitrogen, greater microbial biomass and function, and great functional gene abundance and diversity.” The authors attributed this to the fact that the conventional sites were fumigated with methyl bromide and treated with synthetic pesticides, while the organic sites were not and received double the amounts of compost.

The researchers were affiliated with Washington State University, Pullman; Utah State University, Logan; Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and University of Oklahoma, Norman.

U.S. consumers continue to clamor for organic foods, sales of which have increased nearly six-fold since 1997 to $21.8 billion in 2008 (3 percent of total U.S. food sales). California produces 87 percent of the nation’s strawberries, of which nearly 5 percent are organically grown.

Posted on Friday, September 10, 2010 at 6:27 AM
  • Author: Janet Byron

Mountain food

Every August, I pack up my saddle, cowboy bedroll, chef’s knife and my vacation hours and head to a pack station high in the eastern Sierra Nevada between Mammoth and Bishop. A couple days later I’m out on trail, usually riding somewhere in the national parks of Kings Canyon, Sequoia or Mt. Whitney, with strings of pack mules in front of me.

The author heading to work

The packers—cowboys who load and manage the mules—and I take paying guests, their gear and our supplies into the back country for days, even weeks at a time. The guests hike or ride with us to each camp, where the packers unload the patient mules and I set up my kitchen. That’s when my real work begins.

Pack mules headed up a steep trail

The food for each trip is kept in large, lockable, bear-proof boxes with heavy leather straps that hook onto the pack saddles. Perishables are kept in soft coolers in the bear boxes; cans and bottles are padded with other items in cardboard so they don’t break or rattle together and worry the mules. At night I cover the bear boxes with a tarp, then a bear-alarm system of stacked pans.

During the day, when we’re in camp, the bear boxes are kept covered in the shade of pine trees or granite boulders. Our cowboy menus are practical and reflect what food must be eaten soonest: the first dinner is always burgers, the second, chicken. I remove produce from plastic bags, which hasten spoilage, and keep it in brown bags or wrapped in clean dish towels.

A tidy kitchen at midday. The bear box in the sun holds garbage, the wooden box holds cooking utensils.

After 6 years, I have discovered some secrets of back country cooking: people are always very, very hungry from exercising in the high elevations, which are often above 10,000 feet. But even hungry they still appreciate good, well-prepared and well-seasoned food. The difference between a packaged, instant pudding and a slowly steamed, stovetop apple crisp are obvious. Pancakes cooked with thin layers of ripe peaches are tastier than plain ones. And under no circumstances do you overcook the steaks, even when you’re negotiating damp and uncooperative firewood.

The pack station outfitter supplies delicious meat; the thick bacon alone is worth the trip. I grill chops, simmer stews and roast thick cuts of meat that have been deep frozen for days. The hearty meat dishes are not just for tradition; the packers rise well before first light to wrangle the grazing animals, and protein fuels their long days. But our guests are health conscious and like produce as well.

The lettuce that best survives the days of jostling in the bear-proof boxes is iceberg, but salads of iceberg, tomatoes and cucumbers with packaged dressing get downright dull. Instead we serve a popular broccoli salad or my improvised cole slaw, which varies with every trip depending on what I have in my bear boxes. If there is any left over, I put it out when guests are making their sandwiches for lunch the next morning. Although coleslaw in a sandwich is a mess to eat—believe me, I have done so, leaning over my horse’s mane—its crunch and flavors makes the sandwiches zing.

Guests from Japan helping themselves to grilled lamb served with cole slaw.

Broccoli Salad
Serves 6-8

1 head broccoli
1 small red onion
½ cup dry roasted sunflower seeds
Dressing: mayonnaise, apple cider vinegar, dry thyme, salt and pepper

Trim the broccoli into very small florets. Put dressing ingredients in bowl and whisk. The dressing should be thin enough to coat broccoli nicely but not so it puddles in bottom of bowl. Toss dressing over salad. Sprinkle sunflower seeds generously over the top.

Cole Slaw
Serves 8-10 as a side dish; exact amounts are not critical

green cabbage
red cabbage, if available
2 zucchini, green skins primarily
3 carrots
slivered or sliced toasted almonds
dried cranberries
green or red pepper
red onion
Optional: a can sliced water chestnuts or crushed pineapple
Dressing: Mayonnaise, apple cider vinegar and white wine vinegar (I use both), celery seed (important), salt and pepper to taste. Add mayo and vinegar so dressing is creamy, not gloppy.

With a sharp chef’s knife, thinly slice the cabbage. Pick through and remove any thick white ribs, then dice cabbage as finely as you have patience to do. Grate carrots and zucchini skins (I feed the soft zucchini centers to the mules). Finely dice green pepper and red onion. Toss vegetables together and add cranberries and nearly all the almonds. Look at the balance of the salad: you want a cranberry and a few almonds in nearly every bite. Whisk dressing together and pour over slaw, tossing to coat. Set aside in a cool place and just before serving, sprinkle with remaining almonds.

Posted on Wednesday, September 8, 2010 at 7:27 AM

Apple time!

Remember that snow on the foothills back in May? That cold spell delayed the apple harvest in El Dorado County about 10 days, but the ranches of the Apple Hill Growers Association are now open for visitors. Gravensteins are already ripe and the first crisp and juicy Galas are ready to pick, with Jonagolds close behind. September is the perfect month to visit the ranches, pick your own apples and maybe stop for a glass of wine or a slice of fresh apple pie.

More than 50 Apple Hill Association member ranches welcome the public onto their small foothill farms every fall with fruit stands, U-pick opportunities, wineries, apple pressing, bake shops, and attractions including live music, old-time steam engines, craft fairs, apple-head carving classes and pie-eating contests. The association hosts a website to help visitors find farmstands, where to pick their own fruit or what events are scheduled.

Apple Hill was born of hard times. In the 1960s, pears were the chief source of income for the area. But a disease known as "pear decline" was ravishing the trees. A small group of local farmers met with the UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor and the county agricultural commissioner to discuss how to save the farms. Since most of the farms had a few apple trees on the land, they decided to try inviting people from the Sacramento Valley up the hill to buy some apples and a fresh-baked pie or two as a stop-gap measure until they could figure out a solution. The apple and pie event was instantly successful, the growers formed their association and planted more apple trees, and Sacramento Valley families have made a tradition of the short drive to Apple Hill every fall for the past 50 years.

All over California, apple growers are harvesting now. California is fifth in the United States in apple production, and many of California's growers have organized together to share their harvest season directly with visitors. In San Bernardino County, about 90 minutes from Los Angeles, The Oak Glen Apple Growers Association offers U-pick apples, U-press cider, hayrides, farm animals, tours and history. In Sonoma County, you can check the Sonoma County Farm Trails to find an apple ranch to visit. To find other apple ranches, check the California Apple Commission's site.

When you do pick your own apples at one of the many ranches open to the public, you may be pleasantly surprised to learn that you don't have to climb any ladders. In fact, due to liability concerns, most U-pick operations now make sure that you keep both feet firmly on the ground by planting dwarf varieties of fruit trees for visitors' picking.

Just picked, crisp sweet apples can't be beat for good eating. They are also good for you; an apple a day just might help keep the doctor away. apples are very low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium, and are a good source of dietary fiber and vitamin C.

Apples will keep for three or four months, or even longer if stored properly. When harvesting, do not remove the stems from apples that will be stored. Be sure to store only apples without bruises, insect or disease damage, cracks splits or mechanical injury. Store apples at around 40 degrees F for best results. You may also want to wrap each apple in newspaper to keep them from touching each other.

Apples are also great for cooking. Here's an apple crisp recipe from

Mama Shirley's Apple Crisp Recipe

Apple Crisp Ingredients :

12 medium Granny Smith & Macintosh apples (6 of each); peeled, cored and sliced
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups rolled oats
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 1/2 cups packed dark brown sugar
1 1/2 cups butter, softened

Apple crisp directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).

  2. Place apples in a mixing bowl, sprinkle evenly with vanilla. Toss to combine.

  3. In a large bowl, combine the flour, oatmeal, cinnamon, nutmeg and brown sugar. Cut butter into mixture until crumbly.

  4. Evenly place coated apple slices into the bottom of a greased 9x13 inch baking dish. Cover apple slices with crumb mixture.

  5. Bake at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) for 45 to 50 minutes or until apples are tender.
Posted on Tuesday, September 7, 2010 at 6:59 AM

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