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Hackers compete for best ag app

Hackers compete in UC Davis app competition
Winning team, Ag for Hire, brainstorms their app at the Apps for Ag Hackathon with the World Food Center. (Photo: Brad Hooker)

Old coffee cups, laptops streaming code, baggy eyes deprived of sleep: all the usual signs of hackers at work. But a poorly lit hacker hideaway this was not.

The overnight competition, called the Apps for Ag Hackathon, featured farmers, food science students and UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) extension specialists. They teamed up with software developers to craft quick technology solutions that addressed deep challenges in the planet's food systems.

A summit for solutions

The hackathon, in partnership with the World Food Center at the University of California, Davis, was one of a series of events at the Food, Ag and Health Solution Summit, held Dec. 1-3 at UC Davis. Each chapter of the summit brought together uncommon collaborators to partner on a range of possible agtech solutions.

On the first day, the World Food Center's Precision Ag Workshop focused on paving a long-term roadmap with potential industry partners. Ranging from small startups to global corporations and well-established California commodity associations, each organization was investing in front-end irrigation technologies and looking for new opportunities to collaborate with academic researchers.

The pace switched to rapid-fire for a panel at the summit forum on day three: entrepreneurs from eight different agtech startups had seven minutes to pitch their products to the audience. Delving deeper into the world of agtech financing, a later panel discussion asked professional investors what they would look for in startup models.

Evan Wiig of the Farmer's Guild talks to the hackathon group.
Evan Wiig, director of the Farmer's Guild, helps set the challenges for the hackers. (Photo: Brad Hooker)

Hacking through the night

The hackathon ran alongside the forum and other summit events. Participants had only a 32-hour window to fuse together teams, brainstorm a product, develop rough cuts of their software and present their final pitches to the judges.

"People get a little low on sleep, they get a little silly, the creative juices really start flowing," said Apps for Ag organizer Patrick Dosier to Capital Public Radio. "Software developers often have their headphones on and they're in the zone writing code."

With $10,000 in total prize money and a paid trip to Zurich, Switzerland, at stake, the hackers in their final minutes before turning in their presentation slides were actually focusing more on the human network. The conversations evolved away from talk of web hosting software and .png files to meeting for a coffee later and talking about ways to collaborate in the future. While some groups rehearsed their pitches, others exchanged business cards and phone numbers.

Hacker and pillow
A hacker, carrying his pillow, blanket and overnight bag, waits for the final presentations. (Photo: Brad Hooker)

From the Central Valley to Silicon Valley

By presentation time at the tail end of the conference, the hackers were visibly exhausted, some carrying pillows and others seen napping in vacant rooms. Thanks to blankets donated by AT&T, many were able to grab quick rests during the hack.

On stage, the Ag for Hire team showed off their app. It connected contract farmworkers to farmers looking to hire. A "LinkedIn for agricultural labor," the app idea took first place at the competition.

"As a worker myself, it's hard to find a job where I can apply my skills," said team member Alejandro Avalos, who has worked on farms since he was 12 years old. "Our app helps a worker find a job based on his skills and actually get a decent wage for it."

Nick Doherty, a UC Davis undergraduate student and recent pick for Apple's 20-Under-20 list, was also on the team.

Along with the $5,000 award, the team will be flown to the Thought for Food Global Summit in Switzerland next year.

Second place and a $3,000 prize went to the team for CropRescue, an app that allows growers to communicate directly with food banks to make excess food donations easier and more efficient. The final $1,500 prize went to the Green Thumb team, which created a task-tracking app to enable better communication among crop advisers, growers and foremen.

UC innovation goes global

Patrick Brown, a UC Davis plant nutrition professor and pomologist at the Agricultural Experiment Station, advised the hackathon teams, as well as taking part in other events. UC ANR small farms advisor Margaret Lloyd also participated in the summit.

Sponsors for the Solution Summit prizes included Intel, UC ANR, the UC Global Food Initiative, UC Innovation Alliances and the Royse Law Firm. The Global Food Initiative also sponsored travel for two doctoral candidates at UC Berkeley and UC Riverside. The Solution Summit was held in partnership with the Innovation Institute for Food and Health, the Mixing Bowl Hub and the SARTA AgStart incubator. 

See the Food Hackathon that inspired the competition.

Author: Brad Hooker

Posted on Thursday, December 17, 2015 at 9:08 AM

Both in-person and online nutrition education are effective for teaching WIC participants

WIC participants receive nutrition education and counseling along with assistance to buy nutritious foods. (Photo: USDA)
The flexibility and convenience of online learning doesn't diminish the effectiveness of training for families receiving nutrition education from the federal WIC program, according to new research by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources nutrition scientists that was published in the December issue of Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Established in 1974, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) is the only federal nutrition program that provides education and counseling to recipients who receive assistance to buy nutritious foods. Depending on the learning style and time restraints of the recipients, however, staying at the WIC center for training and counseling can be a barrier for participation.

The researchers, who are part of UC ANR's Nutrition Policy Institute (NPI), showed that lessons about the importance of eating a healthful breakfast everyday were as effective when presented in person as they were when the participant completed the class on a smart phone, tablet or computer.

“Access to the Internet has rapidly increased in the United States,” said Lauren Au, NPI assistant researcher and lead author of the research article. “To our knowledge, however, the effectiveness of online vs. traditional classes in delivering nutrition education in WIC has never before been studied in a randomized trial.”

The researchers selected breakfast as the lesson topic because it had not been taught before as part of WIC nutrition education even though there is ample evidence to show that regularly eating breakfast is associated with a higher quality diet and decreased risk for obesity.

During the online and classroom training, participants learned why skipping breakfast can lead to poorer health for children and adults and how WIC foods – such as fruit, vegetables, milk, and whole grain cereals– can be used to make healthy breakfasts. Each of the participants was asked to set personal goals for eating healthy breakfasts and making sure their children did as well.

Before the classes began, the participants took a pretest to gauge their knowledge on the topic, and immediately after the class, the test was administered again. Two to four months later, follow up assessments were made to determine whether the participants breakfast behavior had changed and whether they remembered important facts from the training.

“All the participants increased and retained knowledge about how much juice WIC recommends per day – no more than half a cup – and how much sugar per serving of cereal is recommended – no more than 6 grams,” Au said.

Au said the researchers were pleased to confirm that online education is an effective supplement to in-person training.

“Both education types have advantages and disadvantages,” she said. “There's group peer support in the in-person education, and that can be a very powerful motivator.  WIC appointments can be faster with online education, which can provide more flexibility and convenience. Both of these education approaches are incredibly beneficial for promoting healthy dietary behavior in WIC participants.”

A six-minute interview with Au about the research project may be viewed online.

An initiative to maintain and enhance healthy families and communities is part of the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources Strategic Vision 2025.

Posted on Thursday, December 10, 2015 at 8:30 AM

Planting the seeds for garden-based education

Students explore pumpkins with UC CalFresh staff.
The UC CalFresh Nutrition Education Program in Santa Barbara County (UC CalFresh) is planting new ideas and possibilities to increase teacher use of school gardens.

Each school day, teachers must carefully plan and account for their instructional minutes. For each grade level has specific time recommendations for math and English language arts, so teachers often feel they do not have the time to include extra activities in their already packed schedules. When UC CalFresh gave a brief survey to teachers a Santa Maria school last year, teachers identified the following barriers to using their school garden for instruction:

  1. Lack of instructional time or preparation time
  2. Lack of curriculum and learning activities
  3. Too many students to manage in the outdoor setting

These concerns reflected comments that UC CalFresh nutrition educators frequently heard from teachers who were invited to bring their students to the school garden.

Taking these concerns into consideration, UC CalFresh developed innovative strategies to meet the needs of school teachers, showing how instructional minutes in the garden don't have to be “extra” and can include hands-on learning for English language arts and math, with a focus on nutrition. The strategies include:

  1. Clearly aligning garden-based nutrition education with common core lessons
  2. Providing garden-based curriculum and materials for learning activities in the garden
  3. Hosting Garden Open House Days, during which teachers can bring their students to the garden when UC CalFresh Educators are present to increase educator-to-student ratios.

Students explore pumpkins in the garden with their teacher.
To meet the needs of partnering teachers, UC CalFresh educators developed “No-Prep Nutrition Education Kits,” enabling teachers to teach common core-aligned nutrition education lessons without having to use prep time to make copies or create materials of their own. This year, based on the survey data, UC CalFresh expanded the No-Prep Nutrition Education Kits to include lessons that could be taught in the garden.

The first No-Prep Garden-Based Nutrition Education Kit was piloted in October and featured pumpkins. The No-Prep Kit became fondly known as the Pumpkin Kit. The Pumpkin Kit encouraged teachers to take the lesson out to the garden, increasing students' physical activity time while providing opportunities for students to practice common core skills. The kit focuses on nutrition and cooking while reinforcing math, science and language arts. The kit includes books, worksheets, an oven, and several different pumpkins for measuring, cooking, estimating, and tasting. This kit requires no teacher prep time, is adaptable to any primary grade level, and is an easy introduction to garden-based lesson delivery.

During a Garden Open House Day hosted by UC CalFresh in October, kindergarten students and their fifth-grade buddies came out to the garden. The fifth-grade buddies worked with the kindergarten students to use observation skills (five senses), learn adjectives, and draw the pumpkin life cycle. The older buddies gained teaching and language arts skills while working with their little buddies in the garden. Students got to dissect the pumpkins in teams and used the seeds for counting. Each kindergartener took 20 seeds home to practice counting with their parents, which also served as a budding connection for students' families and the school garden.

"If we had something like this every month, we would be able to go out into the garden more and maybe we could get more teachers to come. This is what we need, curriculum that can be used in the garden," said kindergarten teacher Mrs. Joaquin.

Seed counting and sorting.
Moving forward, UC CalFresh is piloting bimonthly No-Prep Kits for garden-based lessons, featuring the USDA's DigIn! curriculum, as well as other UC curricula. Teachers can teach with the kits on their own in the garden or come during UC CalFresh hosted Garden Open House Days for extra educator support. By easing teachers' paths into the garden, students get to spend time outdoors, engage in physical activity, and participate in learning that reinforces their science, English language arts and math skill development.

“The program has been awesome," said one fourth-grade teacher. "[UC CalFresh] incorporated math, science, social studies into lessons. Students were excited and engaged. Many tried new vegetables they'd never had before and liked them! Kids learned responsibility and pride in designing, choosing plants, maintaining and harvesting in school garden.”

For more on UC CalFresh of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties see the Facebook page at 


UC CalFresh nutrition education is offered in schools jointly by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources and USDA. 

Posted on Tuesday, December 8, 2015 at 8:33 AM

Looking back at your leftovers

A Thanksgiving meal can leave lots of leftovers. recommends a labeling system for food storage.
It's that time of year again when refrigerator space at most homes is like prime real estate. Thanksgiving leftovers abound and December treats await creation.

In order to keep the holidays from being spoiled, here are a few tips and tools to have at your disposal. First, check out the food storage chart to know the storage times for your food goodies. For example, cooked poultry has a shelf life of 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator, but can be extended to 2 to 6 months in the freezer. When reheating leftovers in the microwave, remember to bring them to a temperature of 165 degrees F.

If you struggle to remember how old your leftovers are, you are not alone. While lifespan varies, generally there is a four-day guideline. You can use an easy labeling system or even search for food storage phone apps to aid your memory. Iowa State University Extension mentions the 4 Day Throw away app as one possibility.

If both refrigerator and freezer space is now completely taken, but you still want to make some holiday gifts, consider dehydrating, pickling, and canning. Some fall/holiday ideas include:

  1. Dehydrated fruits – colorful, healthy and space saving
  2. Pie filling – a perfect gift for busy friends or family
  3. Fall Garden Relish (recipe below from So Easy to Preserve, sixth edition)
  4. Lemon curd – sweet, sour, rich, and buttery all at once. Yum!


Fall Garden Relish
Recipe from the National Center for Home Food Preservation
(Yields about four pint jars.)

1 quart chopped cabbage (about 1 small head)
3 cups chopped cauliflower (about 1 medium head)
2 cups chopped green tomatoes (about 4 medium)
2 cups chopped onions
2 cups chopped sweet green peppers (about 4 medium)
1 cup chopped sweet red peppers (about 2 medium)
3 ¾ cups vinegar (5%)
3 tablespoons canning salt
2 ¾ cups sugar
3 teaspoons celery seed
3 teaspoons dry mustard
1 ½ teaspoon turmeric

Combine chopped vegetables; sprinkle with the 3 tablespoons salt. Let stand 4 to 6 hours in a cool place. Drain well. Combine vinegar, sugar and spices; simmer 10 minutes. Add vegetables; simmer 10 minutes. Bring to a boil.

Pack boiling hot relish into hot jars, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Remove air bubbles. Wipe jar rims. Adjust lids. Process 10 minutes in a boiling water bath.

If you've never preserved before, consider attending public classes held by UC Master Food Preserver Programs around the state. Find your program and get started!

Posted on Tuesday, December 1, 2015 at 7:09 AM

The science of sensory evaluation

Mouth-watering anticipation of holiday food is part of the science of sensory evaluation. (Photo:
Holidays fan the flames of our love affair with food. As soon as summer melts into fall, our thoughts leap ahead with mouth-watering anticipation to family gatherings around a Thanksgiving or Christmas feast with all the trimmings. Months before the turkey is carved, you can almost smell it roasting in the oven. You can almost taste the salty goodness of stuffing and gravy. You can almost see colorful visions of home-baked treats dancing in your head.

Your sense of taste, smell, sight, hearing and touch sends signals to your brain that the holiday feasting season has arrived. These basic senses are the tools that influence how much you like – or dislike – the foods you eat.

Sensory evaluation also has practical applications in agriculture. UC Agriculture and Natural Resources researchers and their colleagues often conduct sensory panels for specific food crop studies. Recently volunteer evaluators filed into the sensory evaluation lab at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center to participate in a grape sensory panel. UC researcher Mary Lu Arpaia and USDA researcher David Obenland collected data for a study on the impacts of various storage conditions on grape varieties.

David Obenland of the USDA prepares citrus samples for evaluation.
Evaluators tasted grape samples and recorded their responses to appearance, taste and texture. Samples given to each evaluator were randomly ordered to eliminate bias in the test results. Evaluators were instructed to sip water between tastings to cleanse the palate. Evaluation procedures can vary slightly from product to product. When sensory panels are conducted for avocados, evaluators are instructed to munch on raw carrots before sipping water due to the oil in avocados. The coarse texture of carrots more fully cleanses the palate between avocado tastings. Other sensory panels have been conducted on citrus.

“There's a bit of psychology involved as well. How the product looks can influence your perception of how it tastes. To further eliminate bias, evaluators are intentionally isolated in individual stations so as not to be influenced by their neighbors' reactions,” explained David Obenland.

Grapes are displayed for evaluators to rate fruit appearance.
Sensory evaluation is used by commodity groups like the Table Grape Commission too. Data collected from a grape sensory panel provides important feedback to growers to identify factors that will inform marketing strategies and produce a quality product that consumers are more likely to buy. Evaluators can be recruited from industry groups, in which case they are considered to be “semi-experts,” or from the general public which are classified as “true consumers.”

The sensory evaluation lab at the Kearney Agricultural REC reflects the current philosophy of fruit commodity research that the industry's focus should be on sensory evaluation, from new pest management to horticultural practices to varietal improvements. The lab was completed and dedicated in April 2008 with support from the California Avocado Inspection Committee, Citrus Research Board, Food Machinery Corporation, Peach, Plum and Nectarine Growers of California, Sunkist and Table Grape Commission.

Author: Roberta Barton

Posted on Wednesday, November 25, 2015 at 8:37 AM

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