UC Food Blog
A TV report about eating on a Food Stamp budget compelled UC Cooperative Extension nutrition program manager Kathleen Nolan into action.
“The reporter was reaching for a processed meal in a box, and I was yelling at the television, ‘You can’t buy anything in a box!’” Nolan said. “The reporter couldn’t survive on the budget, but I know that I can.”
To prove her point, Nolan decided to take her own Food Stamp challenge. For the month of January, she is eating healthy on a Food Stamp budget and blogging about her diet on Facebook. Nolan writes about menus, shopping lists, recipes, nutrient analyses, cost analyses and the personal impact of changing the way she eats.
To size up the budget, Nolan used the USDA’s online calculator, starting with a typical low-income person her age, living alone with no assets. She also calculated the benefit for a family of six with a typical farmworker income and rent. The average benefit was $5 per person per day.
USDA’s Food Stamp program was renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in 2008 to more accurately reflect its purpose. The benefit is not really meant to cover all food expenses, but to buy supplemental groceries. In California, the program is called Cal-Fresh.
Whatever name is used, Nolan said there are recipients trying to feed their families for about $5 a day per person or less. She believes it’s doable, and could even be healthful.
“It’s not difficult, but it’s challenging emotionally and culturally,” she said. “I’ve had to change my expectations about food.”
To begin with, Nolan is cutting way back on meat.
“Meat can be viewed as a garnish or a flavoring,” she said. “For a lot of people in the world, that’s how they eat.”
In addition to modifying her food preferences, Nolan is taking a hard look at how she shops. Some people have suggested discount grocery stores and even the dollar store. Nolan believes that with careful planning and attention to in-season produce and store specials, the local neighborhood grocery store need not be off limits.
“I start by building a shopping list based on nutrition needs - how many portions of grains, or vegetables and fruit, or protein-rich foods will be needed for the week? I match up those needs with advertised bargains and make a list.”
On the first day of the challenge, she purchased whole-grain hulled barley in bulk.
“I never really ate barley this way before,” Nolan said. “I thought of barley as something to add to soup.”
Nolan mixed ½ cup cooked barley with shredded zucchini, a little cheddar cheese and eggs to make a frittata.
“It was very satisfying,” she said.
Nolan also turns to alternative sources of food, such as friends and neighbors. In one post she wrote about an elderly woman on her block who shares produce from her garden.
“Her late husband made a special shelf on the fence where she puts lemons from her trees so that passersby can help themselves,” Nolan said. “The neighbor to the north has rosemary in her yard - so why would anyone buy it at the store? In turn she gets apples from me and I get collards from a fellow farther down the road. Isn’t that the way life should be?”
By documenting her Food Stamp budget experiences on Facebook, Nolan is hoping to inspire others to eat right and spend less on food. She hopes to further the effort after her January challenge ends by enlisting volunteer families to try to eat on a Food Stamp budget and share their experiences online.
Have you resolved to lose 5 pounds in 2011?
Join the club.
Losing a little weight is a perennial goal on many people’s New Year’s resolution list … and failure to achieve that goal is the primary reason why we keep resolving to lose that 5 pounds year after year.
Judith S. Stern, UC Davis nutrition professor and author of hundreds of articles on obesity and nutrition, says that setting a weight-loss goal is a good thing. “If you don’t make a resolution, you don’t have something to reach for. Resolutions are about hope.”
But no one said it was going to be easy. “Losing weight is even harder than quitting smoking. You can always not smoke, but you can’t not eat,” Stern says. “You’ll die without food.”
However, Stern — who has been on her own weight-loss journey — advises resolution-makers to set realistic weight-loss goals. Here are her recommendations:
- Keep a journal of what you eat and write down your weight every day. “We need cues to help us deal with weight,” Stern says.
- Buy a scale that registers to one-tenth of a pound. “Those whole pounds can be hard to deal with,” Stern says. “I tell my husband when I’ve lost two-tenths of a pound.”
- Aim to lose about 3 to 4 pounds per month.
Most importantly, frame your weight-loss resolution in a way that doesn’t court failure. Setting short-term goals is a good way to go, such as losing 3 pounds in 3 weeks, or exercising 10 times in the coming month.
A positive resolution for many people, especially those who have already lost some weight, may be to simply maintain their current weight throughout the year.
“When you make a New Year’s resolution, think about what you want to accomplish. Figure out how to do it so that you feel good about yourself,” Stern says.
The first commercial crop of an exceptional new mandarin variety created by UC Riverside scientists will be harvested this month.
The fruit, called Tango, is the result of a mutation induced by irradiating budwood of W. Murcott mandarin. The process mimics nature’s manner of improving fruit. Radiation from the sun or natural errors during cell division can cause a single branch or fruit to mutate and develop unique characteristics, which scientists call a “sport.” People have been reproducing favorable sports for generations. In fact, all navel oranges are sports – natural mutations of oranges with seeds or other navel oranges.
W. Murcott mandarins, originally from Morocco, are favored for their deep orange color, easy-peel rind and tangy-sweet flavor. However, when planted within five miles of other seed-bearing citrus – such as Clementine mandarins, lemons or grapefruit – they can be cross-pollinated by bees and become seedy. The Tango maintains the best W. Murcott traits, but because it produces very little viable pollen, it is virtually seedless wherever it is grown.
“This is the most promising mandarin the university has ever produced,” said UC Riverside genetics professor Mikeal Roose.
The Tango mandarin was patented, and registered trees were established by the UC Citrus Clonal Protection Program. Distribution of budwood to citrus nurseries began in June 2006 and was limited exclusively to California growers for one year. Tango was introduced into Florida in 2007 and the trees were available internationally under exclusive licenses in 2009. Tango trees should soon be available to home gardeners through retail nurseries.
In all, 1.6 million Tango trees were sold in California through March 2010.
Tango is not a trademarked name, so the new seedless mandarin will probably be sold under existing grower brand names like Cuties and Delites. Before Christmas, fruit marketed as Cuties and Delites are early ripening Clementine mandarins. Most W. Murcotts and now Tangos will be sold as Cuties and Delites when they ripen in late January, but some Tangos will show up in supermarkets and farmer’s markets under the Tango name.
The Tango was made possible by a UC and citrus industry partnership going back nearly 15 years. Roose and staff research associate Tim Williams began field testing the fruit in 2001. The research and evaluation program was supported by the Citrus Research Board.
“What’s exciting is the parent variety of the Tango is a good piece of fruit,” said Ted Batkin, director of the Citrus Research Board. “It is without a doubt the most widely planted variety that we have released in the past 25 years.”
I don’t know if plant scientists make better chefs, but knowledge of plant science can certainly improve our cooking. Take, for example, understanding how to handle oxidation, the interaction between oxygen molecules and all the many substances they may contact. Oxidation is what makes your fender rust and your copper penny turn green. As it relates to plants, oxidation is what causes fresh-cut produce to turn brown and wine to lose its flavor when left too long in an open bottle.
Perhaps you know how to thwart oxidation when preparing potatoes and serving sliced apples (and if not, we’ll get to that in a minute) but here is a less-common food that often falls victim to oxidation: pesto. Has this happened to you? You gather an armload of picture-perfect basil, blend it together with olive oil, pine nuts, garlic and cheese and produce a fantastic pesto sauce for your spaghetti. Fresh from the blender, it’s as green as your holiday tree. But by the time you serve it an hour later, it’s a dull shade of olive brown and has lost much of its taste. Oxidation strikes again.
Here’s a handy plant-science trick: Blanche your basil. Heat destroys the enzymes that cause oxidation and the resulting discoloration. Drop your fresh basil in a pot of boiling water for a few seconds and then shock it in a bowl of ice water. Dry it completely, proceed with your favorite recipe and your pesto will stay green and tasty for days. Here’s the recipe I like to use:
- 2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1/4 cup pine nuts (I use walnuts when I don’t have pine nuts)
- 2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided (for special treat, try using a UC Davis olive oil
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 1/2 cup parmesan or other hard cheese
Combine the basil, garlic and nuts in a food processor or blender and pulse until coarsely chopped. Add 1/2 cup of the oil and process until fully incorporated and smooth. Season with salt and pepper.
If you’re eating it right away, add all the remaining oil and pulse until smooth. Transfer the pesto to a large serving bowl and mix in the cheese. Yum! If you’re freezing it (up to three months), transfer to an air-tight container and drizzle remaining oil over the top. Thaw and stir in cheese.
One of the great things about living in California is the year-round farmer's market. Winter brings an array of winter squash, kale and chard, pomegranates, and citrus - including my favorite, the Satsuma mandarins that can be eaten like candy.
And of course, chestnuts. When we make it to the Sunday Sacramento farmer's market, one of my favorite stops is for roasted chestnuts.
Fun as it is to buy freshly roasted chestnuts, you can do it yourself and you don't need an open fire. They're incredibly easy to roast in your oven.
Preheat your oven to 450º and place the oven rack as close to the bottom of the oven as possible.
The next very important step is to cut an "x" into each chestnut to allow steam to escape. You can do this with a regular serrated knife - you don't need a special chestnut knife. Miss this step and you'll have a big exploded chestnut mess in your oven.
Lay the chestnuts in a single layer on a roasting pan, sprinkle with water, and place in the oven. Roast for 15 minutes, then turn them over, and sprinkle with water again.
Roast for another 15 minutes, or until the skin has started to peel back and the inner meat is soft. Take them out of the oven and allow them to cool. Peel and eat them as soon as they are cool enough to handle! The chestnuts are easiest to peel when they're warm.
Chestnuts are highly perishable and need to handled and stored differently from other types of nuts. So if you buy them at the market, plan on roasting them within two days. There is more on storing chestnuts in ANR's free publication Nuts: Safe Methods for Consumers to Handle, Store, and Enjoy.
And if you want to try your hand at growing your own chestnuts - ANR has also published a handy guide to Chestnut Culture in California.