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Elementary students spring into health!

Imagine a large grassy field on a sunny May morning transformed into the largest classroom in town for nutrition education. Open quiet space quickly became an experiential classroom as over 200 fourth- and fifth-grade students descended to learn about making healthy choices.

The University of California Cooperative Extension’s Youth Nutrition Education Program and the Network for a Healthy California’s Children’s PowerPlay! program partnered at an elementary school in Fresno to introduce students to edible plant parts, healthy food choices, the five food groups and the importance of regular physical activity. Thanks to H&E Nursery, students also had the opportunity to transplant their very own tomato plants.

I could describe the laughter and learning vividly, the wide-eyed students gazing inquisitively at an artichoke or parsnip for the first time, but why not take a look at some of students’ experiences in their own words?

To share what they had learned with the entire school, students created posters for each food group to hang on the stage in the school cafeteria.

Students creating posters to share with their school.

Posters for each food group and physical activity on display in the school cafeteria.

And when the morning was through and the activity stations completed, the students returned to their classrooms with big smiles (and their very own tomato plants). But perhaps the most important, the very reason we do what we do, students returned having gained the knowledge and tools they need to make healthy food choices.

At the University of California, we’re increasing science literacy and working through schools to teach kids good food habits and decision-making skills. The Youth Nutrition Education program serves thousands of low-income students in the Fresno County area. For more information visit us on the web, or call (559) 600-7285.

Posted on Thursday, June 9, 2011 at 1:03 PM
  • Author: Shelby MacNab

School gardens: Important in the past...and the future

“The school garden has come to stay.”

In 1909, Ventura schoolteacher Zilda M. Rogers wrote to the Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of California, Berkeley, then the flagship agricultural campus for California’s land grant institution, and a primary proponent and provider of garden education resources for schoolteachers. Rogers wrote in some detail about how her school garden work had progressed, what the successes and failures were, how the children were responding to the opportunity to garden, how her relationship with the children had changed as a result of the garden work, and what she saw as potential for the future.

“With the love of the school garden has grown the desire for a home garden and some of their plots at home are very good. . . . Since commencing the garden work the children have become better companions and friend . . . and to feel that there is a right way of doing everything. . . . It is our garden. . . . We try to carry that spirit into our schoolroom.”

More than 100 years after Rogers wrote those words, school gardens have continued to be cherished in the public school system in which she worked. The Ventura Unified School District has developed a nationally recognized model that links school gardening, nutrition education and a farm-to-school lunch program featuring many locally sourced fruits and vegetables for its 17,000 public school students.

The University of California took note of the success that educators like Rogers were experiencing with school gardens. Being certain to include the words written by her, the University of California published Circular No. 46, which offered information about how to build school garden programs. School gardens were to be an integral part of primary schooling.  As the circular declared, “The school garden has come to stay.”

School gardens had been used in parts of Europe as early as 1811, and mention of their value preceded that by nearly two centuries. Philosophers and educational reformers such as John Amos Comenius and Jean-Jacques Rousseau discussed the importance of nature in the education of children; Comenius mentioned gardens specifically.

The use and purpose of school gardens was multifold; gardens provided a place where youth could learn natural sciences (including agriculture) and also acquire vocational skills. Indeed, the very multiplicity of uses and purposes for gardens made it difficult for gardening proponents to firmly anchor gardening in the educational framework and a school’s curriculum.  It still does.

The founder of the kindergarten movement, Friedrich Froebel, used gardens as an educational tool. Froebel was influenced by Swiss educational reformer Johann Pestalozzi, who saw a need for balance in education, a balance that incorporated “hands, heart, and head,” words and ideas that would be incorporated nearly two centuries later into the mission of the United States Department of Agriculture’s 4-H youth development program. (These words still guide the work of the University of California’s 4-H program). Educational leaders such as Liberty Hyde Bailey and John Dewey fused ideas of nature study and experiential education with gardening.

Perhaps one of the earliest school garden programs in the United States was developed in 1891, at the George Putnam School in Roxbury, Mass.  (Today, the nationally recognized food project also teaches youth about gardening and urban agriculture in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston). Like others interested in gardening, Henry Lincoln Clapp, who was affiliated with the George Putnam School, traveled to Europe for inspiration. After traveling to Europe and visiting school gardens there, he partnered with the Massachusetts Horticultural Society to create the garden at Putnam; the model was replicated around the state. It was followed in relatively short order by other efforts, including a well-known garden program in New York City: the DeWitt Clinton Farm School.

Gardening became nearly a national craze during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and “school” gardens enjoyed immense popularity. The United States Department of Agriculture estimated that there were more than 75,000 school gardens by 1906. As their popularity soared, advocates busily supplied a body of literature about school gardening and agricultural education.

One book argued that school gardens were not a “new phase of education,” but rather, an “old one” that was gaining merit for its ability to accomplish a wide variety of needs. School gardens were a way to reconnect urbanized American youth with their agrarian, producer heritage, the Jeffersonian idea of the sturdy yeoman farmer. One author argued for the importance of gardening education and nature study for both urban and rural youth, for “sociological and economic” reasons.

One important reason to garden with urban youth was to teach “children to become producers as well as consumers,” and for the possibility “of turning the tide of population toward the country, thus relieving the crowded conditions of the city.” Other reformers echoed this idea, including Jacob Riis, who said, “The children as well as the grown people were ‘inspired to greater industry and self-dependence.’  They faced about and looked away from the slum toward the country.”  It’s now more than a century later, the average American farmer is in his/her late 50s, and the need to reconnect a new generation of youth to the land seems even more compelling. Could the school gardens of today provide the farmers of tomorrow?

The school garden movement received a huge boost during World War I, when the Federal Bureau of Education introduced the United States School Garden Army. During the interwar years and the Great Depression, youth participated in relief gardening. During World War II, a second Victory Garden program swept the nation, but after that, school garden efforts became the exception, not the norm.

The 1970s environmental movement brought renewed interest to the idea of school and youth gardening, and another period of intense growth began in the early 1990s. Interest in farm-to-school has continued to breathe life into the school garden movement, and some states, notably California, have developed legislation to encourage school gardens. (Under the tenure of State Education superintendent Delaine Eastin, a Garden in Every School program was begun. Under Jack O’Connell’s tenure, Assembly Bill 1535, which funded school gardens, was approved).

We should all take note of the tagline for the U.S. government’s youth gardening program in World War I: “A Garden for Every Child. Every Child in a Garden.” Wouldn’t this be a great idea today? With the cuts in school funding, increased classroom size and other challenges, some school garden programs are facing real challenges. They deserve our support, not only in practice (volunteer!) but also by our advocacy for public policies that support youth gardening work in school and community settings. Why not advocate for a nationally mandated curriculum that promotes food systems education in American public schools, something like “Race to the Crop”?

Some of the best models for school gardens lie in our past.  But the real potential of school gardens to reduce obesity, encourage a healthy lifestyle, reconnect youth with the food system and to build healthier, vibrant communities is something we can realize today . . . and is something that should be an important concern of our national public policy.

A note to readers: Google Books contains copies of two important books in the school gardening literature of the Progressive Era, (Miller and Greene’s), as well as numerous other Progressive era books pertaining to gardening and agricultural education. To learn more about the United States School Garden Army’s efforts during WWI (a GREAT model for a national curriculum today!), visit the UC Victory Grower website.

Posted on Tuesday, June 7, 2011 at 8:31 AM

USDA unveils 'MyPlate' nutrition icon

USDA's new nutrition icon.
The USDA today introduced a simple and clear visual to guide Americans when filling their plates at mealtime. The new MyPlate nutrition icon, which replaces the familiar 'MyPyramid,' shows how to build a healthy meal based on the USDA 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

"As a mom, I can already tell how much this is going to help parents across the country," said First Lady Michelle Obama in a live-streamed news conference this morning. "When mom or dad comes home from a long day of work, we're already asked to be a chef, a referee, a cleaning crew. So it's tough to be a nutritionist, too. But we do have time to take a look at our kids' plates. As long as they're half full of fruits and vegetables, and paired with lean proteins, whole grains and low-fat dairy, we're golden. That's how easy it is."

Obama acknowledged that MyPlate won't end the epidemic of childhood obesity on its own.

"This can't ensure that the community has access to affordable fruits and vegetables. There's still work to do," she said. "It can't spur kids to get up and move. There's still work to do. But we can build momentum with MyPlate. Today is an enormous step in the right direction."

At the press conference, Dr. Regina Benjamin, the US Surgeon General, said Americans needed a simple and easy tool to help them make healthy choices. She praised USDA's "tremendous effort to create a powerful, simple, understandable message."

'MyPlate' is a bold, colorful icon resembling a sectioned dinner plate. Separate fruits and vegetables sections combine to fill half the plate. The other half of the plate shows grains and protein. A circle representing dairy is off to the side.

In a video introducing MyPlate, USDA secretary Tom Vilsack encourages Americans to choose healthier food and balance it with exercise.

"Next time you sit down for a meal, before you eat, think about what's on your plate. In the months and years ahead, we hope MyPlate becomes your plate," Vilsack said.

Posted on Thursday, June 2, 2011 at 8:52 AM

¡Salsa! It’s more than a flavorful condiment

Salsa is health food.
Salsa plays a much-deserved starring role in Mexican cuisine, adding not only refreshing and spicy flavors to breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner, but also conveying an ample supply of nutrients.

A blend of fruits, vegetables and seasonings, salsas are created almost entirely from the foods highly recommended by nutrition experts, says UC Cooperative Extension nutrition educator Margarita Schwarz.

“Experts recommend we eat 3 to  5 servings of vegetables and 2 to 4 servings of fruit daily and salsa is an excellent way to add these foods to our diets,” she said. “We can experiment in the kitchen with different blends, combining flavors that are sweet, acid and picante to create a dish that’s delicious and healthful.”

Schwarz said there are a wide variety of salsas:

  • Fresh salsa (also known as pico de gallo, which in Spanish is literally “rooster’s beak”) is made with chopped tomato, chili pepper, onion, cilantro, lime juice, salt and pepper
  • Salsa ranchero uses similar ingredients but the mixture is blended or grinded until almost smooth
  • Salsa verde (green salsa), in which the main ingredient is tomatillo, a tart fruit related to cape gooseberries
  • Guacamole is a sauce with avocado as the base
  • Mole is a dark-colored sauce made of roasted chili peppers, spices, chocolate and sometimes squash seeds
  • Corn salsa combines fresh salsa ingredients with a generous amount of cooked corn kernals
  • Mango salsa is a chunky, colorful blend that combines the sweet, tropical taste of mango fruit with onions and spices

In the late 1990s, it was widely reported that salsa sales surpassed ketchup sales in U.S. grocery stores. That’s a good thing. Ketchup contains sugar, and salsa generally has none. Salsa is low in calories and contains little to no fat. The tomatoes, chilies and cilantro in salsa have vitamins A and C and the tomatoes contribute potassium to the diet.  The avocado in guacamole contains fiber, vitamin B6, vitamin C and potassium.

“Sometimes people will say: ‘I don’t eat avocados because they have fat,’ but this is the fat that the body needs and that can help prevent cardiovascular disease,” Schwarz said

Salsa is the Spanish word for sauce, but the mixture was a staple of Latin American indigenous cuisine long before the Spanish conquest. Tomato, avocado, tomatillo and many hot peppers are native to Central and South America.

The other “salsa,” a popular Latin dance, is also good for the heart, Schwarz said. The salsa originated in Cuba and Puerto Rico, but all of Latin America has incorporated it into their musical lexicon. Salsa’s fast tempo makes it such a lively physical activity, some health clubs offer salsa classes for aerobic exercise.

Mango Salsa

Following is a mango salsa recipe from the UC Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program curriculum:


1 mango, peeled, pitted and diced (or 1 cup thawed frozen mango chunks)

1 tablespoon diced red onion

1 tablespoon chopped fresh or dried cilantro (optional)

¼ teaspoon salt

Juice of 1 lime or 2 tablespoons bottle lime juice


  1. Combine all ingredients in a bowl
  2. Serve with baked tortilla chips  or us as a garnish for chiken or fish.
Posted on Tuesday, May 31, 2011 at 6:07 AM
  • Posted By: Jeannette E. Warnert
  • Written by: Norma de la Vega. Adapted from Spanish by Jeannette Warnert.

One more way to 'know your farmer'

A ranch dog "friended" me on Facebook the other day. Yep, a dog on Facebook. To be specific, this is a working dog on a ranch that produces meat and sells it directly to consumers like me.

Facebook helps you connect with friends, but also with farmers, ranchers and now... their dogs.

Apparently when Suki isn't herding cows at Scott River Ranch, she's surfing the web.

And exactly how is a ranch dog on Facebook related to food?

More and more people are interested in connecting with farmers and ranchers who produce the food we eat.

If you buy fresh produce at a farmers market, you can also ask farmers (or their employees) questions about which variety is ripest right now, how the produce was grown, how the meat was processed, and what the farm is like. Proactive eaters can sign up for CSA harvest boxes to receive seasonal produce, know exactly who is growing their food, and pledge support to a particular farm or group of farms. We can visit farms to participate in agritourism by buying from farm stands, taking ranch tours and even getting into the fields to harvest "U-pick" berries and other fruit.

"Local is hot" was on one of the opening slides of Kathleen Merrigan's presentation at UC Davis last week. The USDA's deputy secretary was visiting campuses to discuss the agency's "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" campaign, which focuses on local and regional food system support.

Buying fruit at a farmers market is also a chance to chat with farmers and their employees. Cliff Kime of Berryluscious Farm at the Davis Farmers Market.
Buying at farmers markets, subscribing to a CSA and visiting a farm are indeed ways to take part in local or regional food systems. But these activities are also about knowing your farmer — talking with him or her, visiting the land your dollar is supporting, and understanding how your food is grown.

And now we have another way to know a farmer, without even leaving the office: Anyone can like their favorite farmers on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, subscribe to their blogs, sign up for their email newsletters, and more.

Hearing about Suki the ranch dog's antics, with photos of her bathing in a water trough or videos of her chasing a field's pivot sprinklers, is another way for consumers to get a glimpse of ranch life from behind the scenes. Likewise, hearing from a farmer on Facebook about how today's rain might affect the cherry harvest is another way for me to feel connected with the farmer who is raising food I will soon be eating.

Chris Kerston of Chaffin Orchards put it this way: "If I'm walking along the field and I see a weird-looking bug, I'm going to stop, take a picture of it with my phone, put it on Facebook and ask 'Anyone know what this weird bug is?' ... It's just another way for people to see what it's like out on the farm."

Don't take it just from me: National companies are taking notice too. This month the editorial board of The Packer, a newspaper that specializes in the fresh produce industry, suggested that local is also about something else:

"While some national suppliers may look skeptically at the buy local trend, a component of local is consumers’ need to connect with where their food comes from.

"Social media is often the solution."

You can connect with the farmers and ranchers who produce your food — whether you buy it at a farmers market or in a supermarket — and receive updates from the farm or ranch through social media.

You can start by asking your favorite farmers or ranchers if they're on Facebook, and here are a few other networks for finding farmers online:

Join the discussion: So, what would you like to know from the people who grow and raise the food you eat?



Bonus video: Connecting with social media goes both ways; farmers want to connect with consumers who buy and eat their products. Staff and academics with UC Cooperative Extension and UC Davis have offered social media workshops to help farmers connect with consumers online (next one for me will be in Marin County, June 1). Here's a video after one UC workshop a few months ago:

Posted on Thursday, May 26, 2011 at 8:10 AM

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