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New Valentine’s Day trends are good for kids

Last Valentine's Day, Nick Spezzano (Terri's son, in white shirt and bow tie) enjoys fresh vegetables and fruit with his classmates.
At some point in the last few decades, Valentine's Day in elementary schools ceased to be about sharing heart-felt sentiments on simple paper cards. It turned into a candy fest.

Now, with growing attention to the obesity crisis and increasing rate of type 2 diabetes in children, the tide is turning. Many school districts have begun to put limits on classroom parties and teachers are asking parents to provide healthy snacks.

Terri Spezzano, UC Cooperative Extension nutrition, family and consumer sciences advisor and the mother of two school-age boys, is delighted by the turnabout. She has found that, with a little creativity, healthful Valentine's Day parties can be just as fun for kids.

“Last year, I brought strawberries to my son's classroom. We can get local strawberries in California almost year round,” Spezzano said. “Strawberries are always a huge hit with kids. They're fun and shaped a little like a heart.”

Spezzano, who is also director of UCCE in Stanislaus County, manages a staff of 10 nutrition educators in Stanislaus and Merced counties who regularly visit classrooms to teach children about making healthy food choices. USDA provides funding to UC Agriculture and Natural Resources so UCCE offices around the state can offer these educational programs in schools serving low income families.

“Around Valentine's Day, they'll make strawberry smoothies, because they're pink and delicious,” Spezzano said.

Before bringing goodies to school for Valentine's Day, Spezzano suggests parents talk to the teacher. Even if conversation hearts, cupcakes, fruit punch and chocolate are permitted in the school district, the teacher may not like the idea.

“I wouldn't want to teach a class full of first graders strung out on sugar,” Spezzano said.

Spezzano advocates for healthy school parties, but she isn't opposed to allowing children to enjoy some sugary treats.

“I don't want to tell kids, ‘You cannot have sugar,'” she said. “That can lead to sneaking and hoarding and that's where we see more obesity problems.”

Spezzano offered the following suggestions for making Valentine's Day healthy and fun:

Sharing kind sentiments are a great way to celebrate Valentine's Day. (Photo: Jessica Christman, Factory Direct Craft Blog.

  • Give out Valentine-themed pencils or erasers. “These are available at dollar stores at a really good price,” she said.
  • Provide small boxes of raisins.
  • For a special treat, try the new “sour” raisins.
  • Serve heart-shaped pizza, offered by many pizzerias in mid-February. Be sure to pick healthful toppings like bell peppers, tomatoes, onions and mushrooms rather than high-fat “meat lovers” or double-cheese pizza.
  • Cut fruit, cheese or sandwiches into heart shapes using a metal cookie cutter.
  • Don't be afraid to go “back to basics” and allow children to exchange simple paper cards with a kind note, no candy needed.

UC Cooperative Extension offers two nutrition education programs. UC CalFresh provides nutrition education to low-income adults and youth. The UC Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program targets limited-resource families and children.

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

Posted on Thursday, February 12, 2015 at 6:26 AM

Tomatillos add Mexican flavor to California gardens

Tomatillos look like Chinese lanterns growing on a vine.
With spring quickly approaching, it is the ideal time to plan a summer garden in California. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and squash are common and relatively easy to grow. But gardening veterans and rookies alike may want to add some ethnic flavor by cultivating tomatillos.

UC Cooperative Extension advisor Maria de la Fuente said she has planted tomatillos in her backyard garden every year since she moved to California from Monterrey, Mexico, in 1995. De la Fuente serves UC Agriculture and Natural Resources in various roles. She is the director of UCCE in Monterey County, an advisor to commercial specialty vegetable producers in Monterey, San Benito and Santa Clara counties, and the Master Gardener coordinator in Santa Clara County. She said she personally uses tomatillos regularly to make fresh green salsa, green pico de gallo and flavorful traditional sauces for dishes like chili verde.

“You could use green tomatoes, but it doesn't taste the same,” de la Fuente said. “There's really no substitute.”

Tomatillos are native of Mexico and a staple of Mexican cuisine. De la Fuente, who lives in Santa Clara County, said she starts seeds indoors in March and transplants into her garden in mid-May with great success.

“They grow like weeds, but I also buy a lot in the store,” de la Fuente said. “I make a lot of green salsa.”

Tomatillos, small green or green-purple to red fruits that mature inside paper-like husks, can be a healthful addition to family meals, according to the UC CalFresh nutrition education program, which developed a fact sheet in English and Spanish for cooking and eating tomatillos. Tomatillos contain Vitamin C, Vitamin K and potassium and are naturally low in calories.

Crab molotes with avocado tomatillo salsa. (Photo: California Avocados, CC BY 2.0)
Purple and red-ripening cultivars often have a slight sweetness; green- and yellow-ripening cultivars are more tart. Both types can be used for salsas and sauces. The fruits are white inside and meatier than tomatoes, which are in the same family, but a different genus.

To grow tomatillos, spread seeds on moist soil in an egg carton or shallow tray, place in a sunny location inside and keep the soil moist. When the plants are about six inches tall, transplant about three feet apart into garden soil that has been mixed with compost or humus. Select an area where they will get plenty of sun and be sure to plant more than one as two or more are required for proper pollination. The plants will grow to about 3 or 4 feet high and will need support to keep the fruit off the ground.

Tomatillos look like delicate Chinese lanterns on the vine. They are ready to harvest when the fruit fills and splits the husk, but leave the inedible husk on until use. Tomatillos may be kept in a brown paper bag in the refrigerator for about two weeks. For preservation, they may be frozen fresh or cooked. Prepared tomatillo salsa, chutney, relish, jam and sauce may be preserved using boiling water or pressure canning methods.

To prepare tomatillo sauce, gently squeeze the vegetable from the husk. Wash in cool, running water to remove stickiness from the skin. Sauté 2 cups chopped tomatillos, 1 diced onion and 1 diced garlic clove in 2 tbsp. oil. Add ¼ cup of water and heat until the vegetables are soft. Purée in a blender. De la Fuente suggests adding fresh cilantro to enhance the flavor of the sauce.

The CalFresh fact sheet says parents may feed children 6 months of age and older cooked tomatillo and sweet potato puree. Toddlers may be offered small pieces of cooked tomatillos and carrots. Older children may enjoy the vegetable served with cooked potatoes and onion as a burrito filling, or the pureed sauce as a dip with quesadillas, bread or raw vegetables.

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

Posted on Wednesday, February 11, 2015 at 10:36 AM

More reason to eat your legumes

The farmers who first introduced Missoula, Montana-native Liz Carlisle to the revolution taking place deep in her home state's grain belt were a diverse group that included lefty liberals, fundamentalist Christians, and freewheeling libertarians. But they shared a common plight: Years of drought and costly chemicals had damaged their bottom line and their soil, and threatened their family farms.

Carlisle, a recent geography Ph.D. at UC Berkeley, where she is now a fellow at the Center for Diversified Farming Systems, first encountered the group when she worked for U.S. Senator Jon Tester. They were disparagingly called “weed farmers” by Tester's more conservative constituents because of the messy, low-lying appearance of the plants they farmed: organic lentils.

Lentils were a natural for Montana's water-stressed landscape. When there's no water, the plants neither wither nor bolt—they simply pause their growth cycle. So they don't require irrigation. On top of that, they also preserve nitrogen in the soil, fertilizing themselves and leaving behind healthier soil for the next crop.

By cooperating instead of competing, the group of former conventional farmers built a successful company, Timeless Seeds, and showed doubters, including their own state university, that sustainable farming was both possible and profitable.

Carlisle, who studied with Michael Pollan and received book-jacket support from food luminaries including Marion Nestle, Frances Moore Lappé, and Raj Patel, is herself part of the colorful cast of characters she paints in the book: She was a professional country singer and learned that the “amber waves of grain” she sung about didn't live up to their hype as she gigged her way across the country and chatted with farmers after shows.

Carlisle implanted herself in the community of Timeless Seeds farmers across four years of dissertation research, and through their story she lays out a workable vision for sustainable agriculture in the age of climate change.

Read her San Francisco Chronicle Op Ed article and a book review of Lentil Underground, which calls the book "an important contribution to the sustainable agricultural genre."

Posted on Monday, February 9, 2015 at 7:44 PM

Edible Education course draws a crowd

From left, Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan and Garrison Sposito talk Jan. 26 at the opening session of the Edible Education course at UC Berkeley. (Photo by Robert Durell)
The Edible Education 101 course at UC Berkeley kicked off Jan. 26 with big-name excitement: an auditorium packed with students, the buzz of a public live-streamed audience and luminaries tackling the timely topic of food.

Not just what we eat, but also how food is produced and its impacts on the economy, health and the environment. How the food system has been transformed, why it matters and what we can do about it.

“People care about food,” said opening lecturer Michael Pollan, author and UC Berkeley journalism professor. “I think food is a very powerful teaching tool.”

Pollan and Chez Panisse chef Alice Waters, a UC Berkeley alumna who founded the Edible Schoolyard Project, started Edible Education in 2011 as a way to bring food education to undergraduate students. This semester's course — which is co-hosted by New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman and poet Robert Hass — has an added dimension: Lectures are being live streamed to the public. The opening lecture has received more than 7,000 views so far. Upcoming guest speakers will include Marion Nestle, Eric Schlosser and Raj Patel.

“We're a public university,” said course instructor Garrison Sposito, a renowned UC Berkeley soil scientist. “Let's reach the public. How can we do that in today's world? Let's do that by technology.”

As part of the UC Global Food Initiative, UC Berkeley also hopes to offer Edible Education as an online course available for credit to students throughout the UC system, said David Chai, special adviser to UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks.

Edible Education is presented by the Edible Schoolyard Project, Berkeley Food Institute, UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources and UC Global Food Initiative with support from the UC Berkeley Chancellor's Office and the Epstein/Roth Foundation.

Advancing food studies

“If you look at the lineup of speakers, it's pretty impressive,” said Bittman, who is a distinguished visiting fellow this spring at the Berkeley Food Institute. “I think the results will be fantastic.”

Having the support of UC President Janet Napolitano and the Global Food Initiative adds credibility to the study of food, said Nestle, a food studies, nutrition and public health expert who will deliver the next Edible Education lecture at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 2.

Nestle, a New York University professor with a visiting appointment at UC Berkeley's journalism school, recalled having to convince NYU's administration in 1996 that food studies was a suitable academic pursuit. “We were it at the time,” Nestle said. “Now everybody's doing it. It's very exciting.”

Hass, a UC Berkeley professor of English and former U.S. poet laureate who has taught an environmental studies course with Sposito, said that when they invited Pollan to speak nearly two decades ago, “you could see the way students were engaged. Immediately, they could connect.” Today's students are even more sophisticated, Hass said.

Increasing awareness

“It's important that we all become more aware of what the food industry is doing — I can't walk by without someone eating a hamburger,” UC Berkeley sophomore Audrey Nguyen said. “We can't sacrifice our health for convenience.”

Pollan said there is a place for meat but he encouraged people to eat less of it and said he would like to see changes in how animals are raised. During his lecture, “A Brief History of the Modern Food System,” he noted a rapid transformation into an oil-dependent food chain. He demonstrated his point by placing a McDonald's hamburger on a table with four glasses, into which he poured a dark liquid (chocolate syrup) meant to represent oil.

“(It takes) 26 ounces of oil to produce one double quarter pounder with cheese,” Pollan said. “We're eating a lot of oil.”

Upcoming Edible Education lectures will further explore the rise and future of the food movement.

Related links:

Posted on Monday, February 2, 2015 at 10:51 AM

UC launches UC Food Observer blog

Rose Hayden-Smith
The University of California has launched UC Food Observer, a daily selection of must-read news on food policy, nutrition, agriculture and more.

Developed as part of its Global Food Initiative, the UC Food Observer blog (www.ucfoodobserver.com) and related social media channels capture and highlight important news and further discussions about the world of food, complementing efforts of ANR's Food Blog.

Find out more in this Q&A with UC Food Observer curator Rose Hayden-Smith, a UC academic, author and historian.

What can readers expect from UC Food Observer?
UC Food Observer offers a daily roundup of interesting news, reports and thought pieces from a broad range of sources that represent diverse perspectives. The intent is not to focus on UC, but instead allow UC to reflect and perhaps add to the very important discussions that are occurring. Pieces will be posted throughout the day on the UC Food Observer website and social media. The goal is to achieve a balance of perspectives and topics in the lineup. If it might help the reader, larger context may be provided, through background information or additional links in a posting. There also will be an original long-form piece a couple of times each month by me and guest commentators. And UC Food Observer will be engaging actively with people across social media. The hope is to add value to the conversation and to provide a service.

What's the inspiration for the blog?
The idea originated with our colleague, Pete King. With interest in food and agriculture at an all-time high, it seemed like there might be space for something like this: a knowledgeable, curated selection of what's important and interesting in the dialogue around food. There's an incredible amount of good information on any number of topics relating to food and agriculture. There are big ideas out there, and great conversations occurring. If UC Food Observer can help share some of that information, highlight key themes and connect people, it will be a good thing. The more we all know, the better.

Why is the blog needed?
To have a neutral voice pulling together the most important and interesting parts of the conversation around food gives both food insiders and the general public another source of information that hopefully will reflect the constantly evolving food landscape. We hope that the blog will add value to the myriad conversations occurring; not only by including and sharing the terrific work that's being produced by others, but also by providing some unique, original content. We also hope that the blog may engage audiences who have not previously been as engaged in food systems work. Everyone eats. Everyone is a stakeholder in the food system.

Each Friday, the new UC Food Observer blog features the 'Friday Wrap,' a wrap-up of the week's key food news.
How do you decide what to include in the blog?
It's a process of continually scanning the environment, talking to people and organizing a well-balanced “menu” of content each day. The team has a calendar of key gatherings that one of us either attends or “watches” via social media. The content will reflect diverse interests and follow many threads of discussion. A part of the decision-making lies in thinking about what might inform and inspire others.

Included is breaking news and information that's less time-sensitive — for example, perhaps the release of a significant report. A daily lineup generally will include news, information about events and some lighter pieces such as book reviews. We'll share different things on each platform, so the articles shared on Facebook may differ from the articles included in the blog. Content is organized around a couple of dozen categories ranging from local events to issues of global importance. Featuring UC news is not a primary goal; institutional news finds its way into the lineup on its own merit.

The original pieces will vary, but readers can certainly expect some to include a historical perspective and how the lessons of the past might apply to contemporary issues.

You're an author, historian and garden educator. How will that inform your curation for UC Food Observer?
I have an unusual professional background. I consider myself a “consilient” thinker (i.e., literally the “jumping together of knowledge” from various disciplines, as explained by British polymath William Whewell). I've worked as both a technical and more creative writer. I've worked in the technology industry, been an educator, a youth development professional in 4-H, a Master Gardener advisor, done some advocacy work as a W.K. Kellogg Foundation Fellow and served as leader for UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' strategic initiative in sustainable food systems.

My training as a U.S. historian always gives me pause to consider context and to examine how current practices might be influenced by the past. I've curated exhibits and online content as a historian. You make decisions about content, and hopefully they are inclusive, representative and honor various perspectives. I am always eager to understand how we got here. I consider my work as a historian a scientific enterprise: I study the rate, nature and character of change over time.

My personal experience as a school and community garden educator has shaped my thinking in profound ways. I think I bridge social and cultural understandings of food systems with more technical aspects and systems thinking. Things are inextricably linked in a food system — it truly is a web — and I like to think about issues from the hands-on, local level to the broadest implications of that work (often global).

As a UC academic and alum, what led to your interest in this position?
This position combines all the things that I am most passionate about in a single enterprise. I love the opportunity to learn about new things in the food system every day, and being able to cover a broad intellectual and cultural landscape is appealing. I'm a communicator by nature: writing, interacting and connecting with others are all fundamental aspects of who I am. I think the topic of food is incredibly interesting, nuanced, varied and rich … and I think understanding food systems is vital to nearly every challenge we face in the world.

I'm thrilled that UC is engaging in this work. UC has influenced my life in amazing ways … and that experience of influence and learning is still unfolding. I participated in the 4-H program as a youth, was in-residence at UC for summer programs during high school, and attended UC as an undergraduate and graduate student (the last one: three times). Over the course of my career, I have worked in campus-based academic departments, campus extension, the Cooperative Extension service and in student affairs. I am amazed each day — anew — by how the UC system influences our day-to-day lives in the most positive of ways locally and in a more global sense. I reflected a little about all of this in a California Agriculture article I wrote on the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Land Grant Act. It's a wonderful opportunity — and a privilege — to be part of UC's work in this critical area.

If you could change one thing in the food system, what would it be?
That's a difficult question. So many changes are needed. In my book, which was published last year, I identify 10 steps that I think people could take to effect change; many relate to gardening, which is a passion of mine. There's been a great deal of discussion recently about an op-ed written by Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Ricardo Salvador and Olivier De Schutter. It appeared in the Washington Post and called for a national food policy. It's a bold idea … and a necessary one.

I encourage what I term a “fundamental restructuring of agricultural and food policies.” What we have currently is a hodge-podge of regulations and policies that are often in contradiction with one another and that don't always serve us (people and the environment) well. We need a more coherent national policy that considers all aspects of the food system. Our national policy impacts the global food system.

I remain extremely concerned about childhood nutrition and food access. As a nation, we've struggled with this for decades. Childhood nutrition and food access are among the great moral issues of our time – they need to be addressed and resolved.

At the outset of WWII, Vice President Henry Wallace told the nation, “On a foundation of good food we can build anything. Without it we can build nothing.”

I know Wallace has a mixed legacy, but this statement strikes me as both a profound truth and a goal we ought to aspire to.

Related links:

Posted on Friday, January 30, 2015 at 9:34 AM

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