UC Food Blog
Did you know that a banana tree is not really a tree? It's a giant perennial bulb that grows to maturity in less than a year, producing one flower that becomes one huge bunch of bananas. I learned this fact last month from banana growers while visiting the home of organic bananas, the Dominican Republic.
I was invited by a US AID Farmer-to-Farmer project to spend a couple of weeks as a volunteer in the Dominican Republic, primarily to work with the Banelino Banana Cooperative. Banelino is a banana production and exporting company comprised of approximately 320 mostly small-scale banana producers in the northwest section of the country, near the border with Haiti. All producers are certified, or seeking, organic, fair trade, or Global Gap certifications.
Eighty percent of the bananas grown by Banelino are certified organic, and most of them are fair trade certified. The primary export destination for Dominican Republic organic bananas is Europe.
The growers have been impacted by climate change problems, including strong winds, more frequent and intense droughts and record high temperatures. My assignment, based on my work as UC Cooperative Extension Agritourism Coordinator, was to help Banelino assess the potential for successful agritourism development to diversify their income and carry them through hard times.
Like farmers all over the world, the Banelino banana growers have a story to share with visitors. Part of the story is the fascinating revelation of the annual growth cycle of the banana plant; the other part of the story is about the community. I learned the true meaning for the words "fair trade." With the premium, or the added income, that Banelino receives by selling in the fair trade program, the company is able to provide schools, clinics and other social programs for the banana grower and banana worker families. We visited schools and talked with teachers, seeing primary grades classes smaller than most California classes, with children engaged in learning. We visited a school for special needs students, paid for through the Banelino fair trade income, that was so modern and well-equipped it would be the envy of most California special education teachers. It had a colorful art room and a fully equipped, small-scale bakery with mixers and ovens for a training program for the older youth.
Also, like other farmers around the world, Banelino growers have a challenge developing a program to attract paying visitors to tour the farms and learn their stories. They will need to create signs and brochures in multiple languages for their visitors. They will need to work with a local marketing professional to develop a website and social media marketing campaign. They will have to analyze their costs and price their tour so that they don't lose money in the efforts. They will need to connect with the local tourism community and get included in visitor guides and tourism maps. They will need to offer familiarization tours to travel agents, tour leaders and hotel staff to entice them to refer tourists from the all-inclusive beach resorts three hours' drive away. They will have to work with their local hotel association to create an attractive itinerary for visitors to the region - enough attractions to keep guests overnight in hotels - to justify the three-hour drive.
Like farmers everywhere who are considering agritourism, the Banelino banana growers will soon be part of the hospitality industry. They have a wonderful story to share of a hard-working and warm-hearted community. Please look them up if you visit the Dominican Republic.
Almost all pomegranates grown in the United States are one variety: Wonderful. John Chater, a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Riverside, wants to change that.
He would like to broaden the varieties of pomegranates available so that someone going to a supermarket can, like apples, buy varieties of pomegranates that vary in sweetness, seed hardness, flavor profile and color.
With that in mind, he has spent the last four years researching the commercial potential of 13 pomegranate varieties, and also started breeding new types of pomegranates.
He has field trials set up in Riverside and Somis, just east of Ventura, so he can evaluate the difference between coastal and inland climates. He has also chemically analyzed the juice of the varieties for quality.
Preliminarily, Chater, who is a 2016 University of California Global Food Initiative student fellow, has identified seven pomegranate varieties that have commercial juice potential. Three of them – Blaze, Phoenicia, and Purple Heart – were developed by his grandfather, who was a mechanic at a hospital but developed a cult following among fruit growers in California for developing new varieties of pomegranates.
Here are some of the pluses and minuses of each variety compared to Wonderful:
Al Sirin Nar: Large fruit, with hard seeds, soft peel, and large arils. With its sweet-tart juice, it could be useful for juice applications. Seeds may be too hard to be sold as a whole fruit.
Blaze: Medium sized fruit, juice more sweet than tart. Fruit similar to Wonderful. Could serve coastal and inland growers. Has potential to be sold as a whole fruit.
Desertnyi: Soft-seeded, medium sized fruit with ornamental quality. Delicious balanced flavor that has been described as citrus-like. Trees seem to may need trellis or rootstocks for commercial production. Has potential to be sold as a whole fruit.
Parfianka: Soft seeded variety with sweet-tart to sweet flavor. Very precocious in the field and on both inland and on the coast. This variety is an international favorite for its refreshing flavor and soft seeds. Has potential to be sold as a whole fruit.
Phoenicia: Large fruit with medium to hard seeds. Fruit multicolored with yellow, pink, and reds. Sweet-tart flavor with a tartness that consumers enjoy. Fruit seems to keep well in storage.
Purple Heart: Medium-sized red fruit that has dark red juice and arils. Fruit and juice similar to ‘Wonderful'. Sold as ‘Sharp Velvet' at Dave Wilson Nursery.
Sakerdze: Large fruit, with hard seeds, soft peel, and large arils. Juice is sweet to sweet tart. Fruit can be pinkish to red.
Dedicated growers and research support from the University of California have made avocados a California success story. As part of the UC Global Food Initiative, which is channeling UC resources toward sustainably feeding the world's growing population, the California avocado experience can help alleviate food insecurity and poverty overseas.
Two UC Cooperative Extension specialists found a way to do that in Tanzania, Africa, where 69 percent of the population live below the poverty line and 16 percent of children under 5 are malnourished. In March 2017, UCCE biocontrol specialist Mark Hoddle and UCCE subtropical crops specialist Mary Lu Arpaia traveled to the east African nation to help growers there with their fledgling avocado industry.
In the late 19th Century, German missionaries introduced avocados to Tanzania when it was colonized by this European nation. Germany lost influence over the African country following World War I, but huge non-commercial avocado trees still thrive in the landscape.
Recently, attempts at commercial production growing the popular Hass variety are gaining momentum.
With proximity to a European market hungry for fresh avocados, Rungwe Avocado Company planted 250 acres of the Hass variety in the southern highlands around Mbeya near Lake Malawi, which establishes the border of south western Tanzania with Zambia and Malawi. In order to grow production to a level that would make the export to Europe practical and to support rural residents with a viable business option, approximately 3,700 small landholder farmers, known as outgrowers, were recruited to grow avocados. They manage small plots with as few as 20 trees to larger acreage with more than 200 trees, with participating farms ranging in elevation from 1,200 to nearly 6,000 feet.
However, this fledgling industry is experiencing production challenges, prompting the company to contact UC Cooperative Extension. UC faculty, specialists and advisors have conducted research on Hass avocados for decades in California and worked closely with growers to extend information that has supported the development of an industry with high-yielding trees producing premium fruit valued at more than $400 million per year.
“One of the aims of the Global Food Initiative is to deploy UC's best research and extension practices to address the key challenge of improving food production,” Arpaia said. “That's why we went to Tanzania.”
Hoddle and Arpaia visited growers, extension technicians, packing house managers and logistics experts. They identified production, pest management and fruit handling challenges faced by the avocado industry.
“The situation in Tanzania is quite different than California, and also different compared to Central and South America, where we have also worked on avocado production issues,” Hoddle said. “But we identified familiar issues that affect management for which there are solutions.”
Hoddle examined the Tanzanian avocado trees and fruit, and collected insect specimens. He said the insect damage was minimal at the time of the week long visit.
“That surprised me because of the insect biodiversity in Africa,” he said. “There was little evidence of heavy leaf feeding. There was some evidence of fruit damage caused by insect feeding on the skin, but they don't seem to have fruit boring weevils or caterpillars that we commonly see in parts of Mexico, Central and South America.”
A critical issue is extending entomological information to the outlying farmers to improve their ability to identify and manage beneficial insects and crop pests.
“They don't have the magnifying loops, collecting vials and insect boxes that we regularly use for insect identification,” Hoddle said. “I showed them my Leatherman tool, which can be used to open up fruit and look for damage. They need these basic tools.”
A post-harvest expert, Arpaia was able to identify ways to improve picking, handling, storage and shipping practices that would result in top quality fruit arrival in Europe.
The two scientists produced a report, which emphasized the need to provide outlying growers with basic equipment and agronomic information.
“We want to help them be better avocado farmers so the crop can be a greater contributor to the country's economy,” Arpaia said. “Boosting this industry will also give people all over Tanzania the opportunity to add nutritious avocados to their diets.”
When United States Congressman Jim Costa learned about the federally funded nutrition education programs being offered in his district, he made plans to visit.
He wanted a first-hand experience with UC CalFresh, in which UC Cooperative Extension educators visit classrooms to share new foods, teach healthy eating strategies and demonstrate physical activity to children and low-income families.
In April, Congressman Costa not only met a group second graders at La Vina School in Madera County, their teacher Veronica Nava, and principal Jesus Navarro, he tucked in his tie and blended healthful ingredients like black beans, bell peppers and fresh mangos into the salad for the children to taste.
"I grew up in a rural area like you, and went to a wonderful school, like the one you're going to," Costa told the children. "You're lucky to have classes like this. It's so important to have good eating habits."
Costa said it was an honor to represent the second-graders and their parents in Washington, D.C.
"Can you do me a favor?" he asked. "I want you to be the best you can be. If you do well in what you do, America will be a better country."
Before leaving, Costa led the children in the 4-H Pledge:
My head to clearer thinking,
My heart to greater loyalty,
My hands to larger service,
My health to better living
for my club, my community,
my country and my world.
As a youth, Costa was a member of 4-H, a youth development program offered to children aged 9 to 19 by UC Cooperative Extension.
Congressman Costa mixed up the following recipe for the students:
- 1 15-ounce can black beans, rinsed and drained
- 2 cups peeled, pitted and diced fresh mango (about 2 small mangos)
- 1/4 cup sliced green onions
- 1/4 cup chopped bell pepper
- 2 tablespoons lime juice
- 2 tablespoons 100% orange juice
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
- 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
Mix together all ingredients in a large bowl. Salad may be served right away, but is best if covered and chilled for a least 1 hour for flavors to blend.
How do we support low-income Latino families with appropriate nutrition education that makes a difference in their lives? This was the question staff with the UC CalFresh Nutrition Education Program in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties were asking ourselves as we prepared for a monthly presentation at the THRIVE Healthy School Pantry in Santa Maria, California.
While many nutrition education programs work with local food banks to provide food demonstrations and nutrition information at supplemental food distribution sites, often, these classes can feel rushed. People are likely hurrying to pick up their food and so there is little time for more than just one-way communication where the educator provides the information and participants listen. Other times families may feel obligated to stay for the nutrition lesson in order to get their bag of food for their families.
This was the experience of our UC CalFresh Nutrition Educators delivering presentations and recipe demonstrations at the Healthy School Pantry food distribution. The Healthy School Pantry is a monthly food distribution focused on increasing food security and providing a strong social network for families to access a wide variety of community resources in English and Spanish.
When our nutrition education team started working at the Healthy School Pantry, the set-up was similar to a formal classroom environment where there was a teacher and students. The students (in this case, parents and families) would sit in rows, while the nutrition educator stood up front with a projector and microphone providing nutrition messages and a recipe demonstration using food from the pantry. We would include skills for preparing a recipe, and offer food samples and practical tips related to USDA's MyPlate.
After a few of these formal presentations, we began to notice that many parents were not interacting. We would ask for questions or suggestions on how participants could use this information or recipe, and most would respond with silence or politely, “todo está bien, gracias” [“everything is good, thanks”]. We also noticed other families would try to get past our table without making eye contact in order to leave. It became apparent that the families, for various personal or cultural reasons, did not feel comfortable participating and interacting in this formal class setting. Others just did not want to sit and listen for 15 to 30 minutes if they weren't sure that the information was going to be relevant to them.
Taking this into account, we decided to modify our approach. First, we got rid of the microphone and projector and moved our table into a high traffic area more integrated with the other community resources. Next, we changed our presentations to be more participatory and conversational. We set up our table with a colorful display and often a food sample, and then we walked around to the front of the table where we could greet and approach the families without a barrier. At one recent event, we brought an activity wheel and some basic physical activity equipment like jump ropes and stretchy bands. Parents walked right up and started to spin the wheel. When it landed on an exercise they would grab the equipment and start doing the activity and asking for tips. We were so surprised that they wanted to actually do the exercise right then and there and were really interested in talking to us about how they could get more physical activity in their busy lives. At one point we had a long line of parents waiting.
With these small changes, parents are provided more individual attention and an opportunity to have a conversation with the educator rather than feeling like they are students in a classroom. We are able to have more meaningful conversations and the parents are the ones approaching us and asking, “What recipe are you preparing today?” Parents are initiating the conversations and once we engage with them, they have many more questions about the ingredients, where to get them and the dialogue continues in a natural way that is meaningful and relevant to their lives. We are also able to clear up some misconceptions they may have. For example, we have heard many parents say they think that canned or frozen fruits are not healthy. Once we have their trust we are able to clear up the misinformation and let them know that canned and frozen produce can be an economical way to get more fruits and vegetables in their diet and, as long as there isn't added salt or sugar, can be just as healthy as fresh produce.
Within these conversations we take the opportunity to provide nutrition messages and tips, but we also have the opportunity to hear the parents' perspectives and comments. For example, one participant commented on a recipe they were demonstrating saying, “I really like the bean and garbanzo salad because it's nutritious, it has iron, vitamins and it is really easy to make.”
For our larger nutrition education program, this method has brought about additional benefits, including the opportunity to build stronger relationships with parents in the community and to talk to them about what our program is doing with their children during the school day. One mother who had approached our table several times in the past told us, "For me and my family, we have changed a lot about how we eat. We eat healthier and cheaper and we spend less on buying junk food. My children like what they have been taught in their classes by your program. That's why I like it because my children no longer like to eat things that are not healthy.”
Through these conversations, we see that families are leaving our table more informed and are more willing to seek out and approach our table the following month. The level and quality of interaction has increased and we are able to see and hear about the impact of our work and modify or change approaches based on the suggestions from the families.
We will continue with this successful education delivery model because we have seen and heard the satisfaction of the families and have received a lot of great feedback from parents. These small successes that are revealed to us through mutually respectful conversations keep us motivated to continue to provide services and promote a healthier community in a way that respects and values the experiences and knowledge that our families share.