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Growing food and community

A wonderful example of community coming together in partnership to grow good food has taken root in Oxnard, Calif.

Last year, in an effort to reduce costs while improving the taste and nutrition of meals, the Senior Nutrition Program began growing their own tomatoes. They set up their garden with the help of UC Master Gardeners on a quarter-acre behind the Juvenile Justice Center.

The program began when the County of Ventura Area Agency on Aging, which serves over 200,000 meals annually through senior nutrition programs, collaborated with the Probation Agency Juvenile Justice Facility staff to create this positive program. As word of the project has spread many business and organizations have come forward to donate time, expertise and resources.

A year later, the garden has grown to two acres. Fifty fruit tress and a wider assortment of vegetables have been added. Ventura County Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners teach incarcerated youth gardening skills. Senior volunteers work alongside youths, mentoring while tending the garden. All produce grown at the garden is used to feed seniors through senior meal programs and local food banks.

This project, as well as others like it, take time, effort and dedication to get started; however, the positive benefits come back many times over. Looking to start a similar project in your community? Contact your local Cooperative Extension office for resources in your area. Or check out UC ANR publications that can help you and your group. Some are available free and others may be purchased online.

Posted on Thursday, December 16, 2010 at 6:24 AM
  • Author: Chris M. Webb

Food, hand-washing and the ick factor

Very few people wash their hands adequately prior to preparing or eating food. Most of us don’t even know how to wash hands properly.

There are many good reasons to wash hands:

  • Pathogen spread – from yourself, from others, from one contaminated food to another (meats, produce, etc.)
  • Chemical spread – whatever chemicals are on your hands can go directly into the food being prepared. This can include pesticides, hand sanitizers (ick), cleaning products, hand lotions, etc.
  • The ick factor – “Ick, what’s that slime on your hands and do I really want that in my food?”

The most memorable item I learned about hand-washing is that we need to wash for at least 20 seconds — the time it takes to sing the entire “happy birthday song” twice (and slowly). Watch anyone in any kitchen or public bathroom, and very few come close to washing for that long.

It’s human nature to think that our own hands are cleaner than everyone else’s, and that maybe we ourselves have less need to wash our own hands before preparing food for others. Well, everyone benefits if we all wash our hands well before cooking or eating.

Many years ago I got giardia, which laid me out for weeks, and my doctor and I determined that I probably got it from a food-service worker who did not wash hands properly. A big “ick.” It was a real wake-up call about the need for hand-washing.

So, if you hear me singing the happy birthday song while washing my hands in the kitchen, you can be thankful for my commitment to good hygiene.

Guidelines for hand-washing

  • Wet your hands with clean running water
  • Apply liquid, bar, or powder soap
  • Lather well
  • Rub your hands vigorously for at least 20 seconds. Remember to scrub all surfaces, including the backs of your hands, wrists, between your fingers and under your fingernails
  • Rinse well
  • Dry your hands with a CLEAN or disposable towel or air dryer
  • If possible, use your towel to turn off the faucet

(Information on hand-washing and using hand sanitizers can be found at the information sources below.)

Information sources for handwashing

Lastly, while we’re addressing kitchen sanitation, please use a clean tasting spoon each time you sample what you are cooking. It’s a really big ICK to taste from the stirring spoon, then put it back into the food. It’s also a way to spread germs, especially in uncooked foods. Yes, cooking may sanitize the spoon, but people still don’t want to eat other people's saliva, sterile or not.

Happy holidays, and stay clean and healthy!

UPDATE (Dec. 15, 2010): A new press release from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 1 in 6 people get sick from foodborne illnesses each year. The CDC also reports that keeping hands clean is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of infection and illness.

Posted on Wednesday, December 15, 2010 at 9:18 AM

Feeding the world: Top 100 questions for agriculture

When looking for good answers to big problems, you better make sure you’re asking the right questions – especially when you want to put food on the global table for 9 billion people.

That’s exactly what a team of 55 agricultural and food experts from the world’s major agricultural organizations, scientific societies and academic institutions did recently when they identified the top 100 questions that must be answered if the world is to increase food production by 70 to 100 percent by 2050, when the world’s population is expected to reach 9 billion. Their list appears in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability. A PDF of the article is linked at the end of this post.

The top 100 questions cover 13 priority themes and are intended to help frame the research, policy and funding agendas for global agriculture. They were selected from an initial list of 618 questions that had been identified by a core group of experts representing universities, United Nations agencies, research institutes, non-governmental organizations, foundations and regional research secretariats in 23 countries.

Co-author Thomas Tomich, director of the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis, predicts that global agricultural and food systems will have to change substantially to meet the growing worldwide demand for food. Looming issues such as climate change, water stresses, energy insecurity and dietary shifts won’t make the challenge any easier, he says.

“California is a hub for technological and scientific innovation, and we can set the pace for a transition to a more sustainable food system, providing inspiration and insights for the world,” Tomich said. “Indeed, if we cannot pull this off in California, who can?”

He noted that it is imperative for the scientific research agenda to keep abreast with the challenges of global food production.

“For California agriculture to stay at the cutting edge in a competitive food system that is facing increasingly complex challenges worldwide, our researchers need to be engaged globally,” he said.

UC Davis' Agricultural Sustainability Institute was founded in 2006. The finstitute is committed to helping ensure access to healthy food and promoting the vitality of agriculture today and for future generations through integrative research, education and communication efforts. The institute includes the UC statewide Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, the UC Davis Russell Ranch Sustainable Agriculture Facility and the UC Davis Student Farm. 

Top 100 questions for agriculture (pdf)
Top 100 questions for agriculture (pdf)

Posted on Friday, December 10, 2010 at 1:24 PM

10 tips for navigating 'national eating season'

How can you enjoy holiday eating without going overboard? Linda Gigliotti, director of UC Irvine’s Weight Management Program, offers 10 tips to prevent packing on extra pounds:

  1. Make yourself a “health calendar.” Map out your food choices each week and schedule regular exercise. The calendar can help you prepare for a proliferation of parties and survive the Halloween-to-Super Bowl “national eating season,” said Gigliotti, a registered dietitian. “The best four-letter word to use is plan. Stop, take a deep breath and anticipate the situation.”

  2. Establish a calorie budget – the number of calories you can consume per day and maintain your current weight. “Look at high-calorie days and have a plan to offset those,” Gigliotti said. 

  3. Exercise. Every bit helps. Walk up stairs or around the block. Try to get a total of 30 minutes a day.

  4. Get enough sleep. People who are sleep-deprived are more prone to overeat, Gigliotti said.

  5. Arrive satisfied. “Plan for meals and snacks throughout the day prior to an event, so you’re having something – ideally low calorie like fruit or vegetables – every three hours,” Gigliotti said. “Don’t starve yourself throughout the day. That’s a setup to overconsume calories.” 

  6. Decide what foods are important to have. “I never would eat bread or a roll at a Thanksgiving dinner,” Gigliotti said. “I’m not going to waste my calories on that. Now stuffing we only make once a year. We’re going to have that and enjoy it.”

  7. Drink slim. Alcoholic drinks can pack calories without filling you up. Consider a club soda with a twist of lime. “If you have something in your hands, people are less likely to push food on you,” Gigliotti said.

  8. Be creative. Instead of a cookie exchange, Gigliotti does a soup exchange with friends, providing low-calorie meals for days.

  9. Practice “environmental control.” Buy smaller quantities of items and don’t put out fattening items at home or at work. “If it’s there, we’ll eat it,” Gigliotti said.

  10. If you do overindulge, don’t get discouraged. Compensate by reducing your caloric intake for a few days. “Look at the big picture,” Gigliotti said. “Have a healthy relationship with food choices.”

What are your best suggestions for battling the holiday bulge? For more tips, view UC Cooperative Extension advisor Brenda Roche’s Food Blog post and these other UC sites:

Posted on Thursday, December 9, 2010 at 6:31 AM
  • Author: Alec Rosenberg

Shopping for fruits and vegetables 'like we used to'

Shopping outdoors and having the chance to freely choose, ask questions, taste, and perhaps haggle a little are some of the reasons for immigrants from Latin America and elsewhere to find farmers markets particularly appealing. Childhood memories of going to open-air markets with their families are probably another big reason for them, but also for many older U.S. born consumers who are becoming regular customers.

Fortunately, as more non-Latinos and non-immigrants discover or re-discover the advantages of buying fresh produce grown by small farmers, we all will have more opportunities to enjoy getting our favorite fruits and vegetables "like we used to."

For my wife, Sylvia, and I is a lot more fun to buy our produce at our nearby farmers markets in Redlands and San Bernardino than shopping at the supermarket in our neighborhood. Going from stall to stall checking out what's offered is a totally different experience, and certainly more exciting. Unfortunately, these markets don't operate during the winter months, so we'll have to wait until next year.

We feel that we get more for our money at farmers markets. Eager to sell, vendors gladly greet you and talk to you as if you weren't a stranger to them. You feel invited to take a closer look at what they're selling. They try to show you that they care about you as an individual customer and want you to be happy with your purchase, just like it used to be before big supermarkets took over our food supply.

Not yet convinced? How about taking a bite of the fruit or vegetables that many vendors have always ready for you to sample? When was the last time they treated you like that at your local supermarket?

For my wife and I, that's the closest thing to going back in time when we went shopping at the produce markets of our childhoods, hers in Nicaragua, and mine in México. It's a tradition that can be traced to the Aztec's tianguis, as those ancient Mexicans called their open-air marketplaces.

Spanish conquerors were marveled at the wide and colorful array of fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs sold at the indigenous marketplaces, as described by Bernardino de Sahagún in his Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España (General History of the Things of New Spain). They found elotl (fresh corn) and teosintl (dry corn for tortillas and tamales), éxotl (green beans, also sold as dry beans)  tomatl, (tomatos) ayotl (offered as zucchini and pumpkin), aguacatl (avocado), an enormous variety of chiles (peppers), and many other foods native to pre-colonial Latin America that now help to feed the world.

With the help of UCANR's Small Farm Program and its farm advisors, California growers continue to provide us with an ever-increasing variety of fruits and vegetables that are dear to the heart of immigrants from all corners of the world. Many of these can be found at farmers markets close to you.

Granted, the produce at open-air markets may not look as gorgeously tempting as the fruits and vegetables carefully polished and arranged at grocery stores. But my wife and other farmer market regulars swear by the flavor of the goods they get from these modern day nomadic food merchants.

You may have to pay a little more than at chain supermarkets that buy huge quantities of produce at very low prices from giant farms, which may be thousands of miles away or in other countries. But by purchasing at local farmers markets we get the feeling that we are helping to keep our state's agricultural tradition alive.

Buying produce grown at local farms is definitely a way to contribute to your own community. More than often, there's no question about who wins by shopping from these markets.

At a recent visit to the downtown San Bernardino farmers market my wife intended to buy only a few serrano peppers. After paying for them, she was surprised when the vendor gave her a full bag, more than two pounds of peppers!

"What would I do with all that?" she later told me. She took it home anyway and found a recipe to make Chiles encurtidos (pickled peppers). Next time you're this lucky, look for one of the many recipes for preserving fruits and vegetables on the Internet, and tips to preserve produce at home, including a short video with the do's and don'ts to prevent food poisoning.

Like most industries, farmers markets are well aware of demographics and are usually staffed by Spanish-speaking vendors; knowledgeable of Latino immigrants' customs, it's not uncommon for them, as they hand you the goodies that you've bought, to put an extra fruit or vegetable in the bag or in your hand as a token of appreciation.

"This one's for you," they'd say with wink and a smile.

Have you gotten one of those treats lately at your local supermarket?

Shoppers at the Redlands farmers market.

Posted on Wednesday, December 8, 2010 at 9:28 AM

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