Reducing food waste starts at home

Reducing Food Waste with Common Kitchen Utensils

I grew up with parents and grandparents who lived through The Great Depression, so I learned some valuable lessons about frugality by the way they lived their lives. Lessons like saving for the things you want rather than buying on credit, following a household budget so you can pay your bills on time, and never wasting anything, including the electricity to power a light left on in a room after you’ve left, the cold air in the refrigerator that escapes when the door is left open too long, and the crumbs in the bottom of a box of corn flakes that can be used in the meatloaf. The lessons about not wasting edible, usable food have had the most lasting impression on me.

When I was a college student on a very limited budget, my frugal food skills helped fill many gaps in my diet, like freezing the milk in my fridge in ice cube trays before leaving for extended breaks so I could thaw it and use it in cooking when I returned. Then once I graduated, got a job and had a full pantry and bank account, I still couldn’t bear to toss out a mangled crust of bread. Instead, I’d freeze it with other random pieces to be turned into crumbs the next time I need some. And I can’t stop myself from checking the misshapen fruits and vegetables in the discounted bin at the grocery store. If more of us would buy them it would go a long way to reducing the 36 million tons of edible food that get tossed out every year in the United States.

If it shocks you as much as it does me that so much food in this country is wasted while so many people do not have enough to eat, you do not have to wait for new government regulations to make a difference. There is plenty each of us can do right in our own homes to make sure we always use what we have and only buy what we need to avoid wasting food.  This Infographic from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics tells the whole story and you can visit eatright.org for more information on healthful eating or to find a registered dietitian nutritionist.

To help get you started, here are my top tips for getting every last bit of goodness out of the food I buy using some common household utensils.

Rubber Spatulas – They come in assorted sizes, shapes and handle lengths to make it easy to scrape the insides of jars, cans, bottles and other food containers. Without one you could be throwing out 2 tablespoons of mayonnaise in every quart jar and a teaspoon of tomato paste in every 6 ounce can.

Ice Cube Trays – This is the perfect way to save and freeze any extra stock, sauce, or gravy you have, or the milk before going on vacation. Just pop the cubes out once frozen and store in a labeled zip-top bag. Trays with lids help prevent spills and the transfer of odors from other foods. Ice cube trays can also be used to freeze fresh herbs that have been cleaned, trimmed and chopped and fruit juices, pulp or puree that can be used in smoothies.

Salad Spinner – You may not have to toss that limp looking lettuce, just give it a rinse in cold water and a spin to bring it back to life.  If it doesn’t revive enough for salad, chop it and add to a soup or smoothie. Spinning washed salad greens, herbs, and berries before storing in the refrigerator also helps to keep them fresh longer by removing excess water.

Sharp Paring Knife – By cutting away the blemished part of many types of produce (potato, bell pepper, carrot, apple, pear, winter squash) you can eat or cook  the remaining portion without risk. Removing all around the moldy edge on a piece of hard cheese or hard salami is also a way to save the rest.

Citrus Zester or Microplane There’s plenty of flavor to be salvaged from those lemon, lime and orange rinds, so be sure to wash and rinse them and collect what you want before cutting the fruit for other uses.  You can put grated zest, strips or strings in a labeled jar or zip-top bag in the freezer to have on hand when a recipe calls for it.

BONUS TIPS:

Add water, vinegar or wine to near-empty mustard and catsup containers, close cap tightly, shake, and then add to soups, sauces, or dressings.

Add milk to near-empty containers of peanut butter, honey, molasses, jam, jelly, preserves, chocolate syrup, pancake syrup, or maple syrup,  close cap tightly, shake and drink or add to a smoothie.

Read more in Reducing Food Waste from Farm to Fork.

Book review of GMO food

What’s So Controversial About Genetically Modified Foods?

First published on the “FoodAnthropology” blog of the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition.

Editor’s Note: This is the second of two reviews of this book, with a rather different perspective. For the first review by Ellen Messer, link here

What’s So Controversial about Genetically-Modified Foods? John Lang. Reaktion Publishers. 2016

If you want to write a book about a controversy, putting the words “genetically modified food“ in the title should help sell it. Genetic modification of food involves altering the genes of a seed to improve the traits in the plant. It is a difficult technology for most people to understand, and even harder for them to accept when used on what they eat.  A recent Pew Research survey on the risks and benefits of organic and genetically modified (GM) foods found 75% of those who are deeply concerned about GM foods say they are worse for one’s health than other foods, and 79% do not trust information about GM foods from food industry leaders. Is reading What’s So Controversial About Genetically Modified Food? going to allay their fears? Maybe not, but the book does fill a gap in the literature by providing entry to a discussion of how GM foods are just one part of a complex and consolidated food system that has made the global food supply more nutritious, affordable and plentiful than at any other time in history.

Author John T. Lang states his goal in this work was to move towards a more productive model of agriculture based on better policy and investment choices. He effectively uses the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMO) as a proxy for the failures of the current food system. The handful of companies that make GM seeds and agrochemicals serve as a more tangible target than the elusive international policies and trade agreements that have restricted land ownership and blocked investment in infrastructure, warehouses, distribution facilities, centralized markets, and other farm supports needed for local food production to succeed in many parts of the world.  Instead, readers are given an unfolding narrative of how the interconnectedness of the global food system created the need for the consolidation of agribusiness companies so they could operate more efficiently, standardize their products and meet the food safety requirements of their trade partners. These multinational companies were then able to use their vast resources to invest in the research to develop the GM crops that are now being blamed for a breakdown in the religious, social, cultural and ethical meanings of food.

Astute readers will find it difficult to accept this tradeoff. The more important message about this technology they will gain is that it is simply another tool for farmers, like the plough or tractor, both of which were controversial when first introduced.  Readers will come to appreciate that farming is a business, whether done by conventional or organic methods, and it faces the same problems of scale as any other business that tries to expand.  And like any other tool, GMOs can be replaced by ones that do a better job at solving a problem, so working with the companies that develop new technologies is the best way to have an impact on the design of the new tools. A poignant example of this is concept is found in this critique of sustainable agriculture by Tamar Haspel for The Washington Post.

Lang’s focus on GMOs as a surrogate for a broken food system also provides an expedient way to illustrate how central trust is to our relationship with food today. As Lang explains, fewer and fewer companies control every aspect of our food from “gene to supermarket shelf,” and the path our food travels is a “maddening, impenetrable maze.”  He says the food system has become so complex and entwined that it’s “almost impossible to ascertain the true origins of any given foodstuff.”  Is it any wonder the public finds it difficult to trust all of the players in the food chain, especially when they view companies, regulators, and policy makers as having their own vested interests?  This “trust factor” is further compounded by the indeterminate nature of scientific knowledge and the uncertainly and unintended consequences that go with it. Can we really say GM foods are safe? Can we say any food is safe? It has become easier for people to trust complete strangers to be their Uber drivers and Airbnb hosts than to trust government institutions and big corporations to protect the food supply.

The book provides a broad view of the issues that must be considered when discussing GM foods and the global food system and an opportunity to expand research into several key concepts introduced, such as risk-tolerance, the precautionary principle, and how the “technology treadmill” impacts industries trying to grow and compete. Intellectual property rights and patent laws are also briefly covered, but could be explored further as they apply equally to GM, non-GM and organic seeds and to all of the research conducted at public and private universities, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and international agencies,  not just private industry.

The discussion on labeling of GM foods in Chapter 3 opens up multiple channels for continuing research and debate. Questions to consider in a classroom setting include, Is GMO labeling about inalienable rights of consumers or personal preferences? Are GM foods different in any measurable way? Can we verify the use of GM seeds in the foods we eat? At what thresholds can GMOs be detected? Who will monitor adherence to labeling requirements and at what cost? Should we have international standards for labeling? Do laws requiring the labeling of GM foods mean we agree we should sell GM food?

Chapter 4 moves beyond the symbolic battle over GM food to expose the complicated way people actually make decisions about what they eat. Compelling classroom discussions could be generated by asking students why people say they are concerned about putting GMOs into their bodies, yet there is a global epidemic of obesity and its co-morbidities due to the poor food choices people make every day. Why do people say they do not believe the scientific evidence demonstrating the safety of GM foods that has been reviewed by international food safety authorities, yet accept the conclusions of those same authorities about the nutrient content of foods, absence of bacterial contamination and truth in labeling of ingredients? Why don’t people want to change their own eating habits to reduce food waste, eat less animal protein and consume fewer processed foods, but want the way food is grown and marketed to change?

Lang says these contradictions will not be resolved by providing people with more information on how GM foods are made since they view GMOs as tampering with nature, but that misperception needs to be addressed.  A discussion of the 2015 PEW Institute study that exposed the problematic disconnects between the public and the scientific community regarding the safety of GM foods would have been instructive here. Resistance to new technology is a well-documented human response, as chronicled in Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies (Oxford University Press, 2016), so Lang’s suggestion of “stronger safeguards and regulations” is not necessarily the answer.

My interest in the book stems from my work as a registered dietitian nutritionist and consultant to Monsanto, as well as my work as a cultural anthropologist focused on hunger and food waste. Its classroom effectiveness depends on how it is introduced and what additional readings are assigned, but it should be an effective tool to prompt discussion in undergraduate courses in agribusiness, anthropology, biotechnology, dietetics, ecology, environmental science, food science, horticulture, investigative journalism, nutrition, public health, and sociology. This book is also recommended for any casual reader with questions about the role of science and technology in producing our food.

CITED REFERENCES

Funk, Cary, and Brian Kennedy. 2016. “The New Food Fights: U.S. Public Divides Over Food Science.” Pew Research Center website, December 1. Accessed January 3, 2017. http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/12/01/the-new-food-fights/

Haspel, Tamar. 2016. “We need to feed a growing planet. Vegetables aren’t the answer.” The Washington Post website, December 15. Accessed January 3, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/we-need-to-feed-a-growing-planet-vegetables-arent-the-answer/2016/12/15/f0ffeb3e-c177-11e6-8422-eac61c0ef74d_story.html?utm_term=.1a4263e3eb3f

Funk, Cary, and Lee Rainie. 2015. “Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society.” Pew Research Center website, January 29. Accessed January 3, 2017. http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/12/01/the-new-food-fights/

Juma, Calestous. 2016. Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

 

Food Evolution shows how science can allay fears

A Review of the Documentary “Food Evolution”

Photo Courtesy of Robyn Flipse.  From left to right, Mark Lynas, Alison Van Eenennaam, Emma Naluyima, Scott Hamilton Kennedy, and Neil deGrasse Tyson

This review was first published in Monsanto L.E.A.D News & Notes

Before the start of the world premier screening of the documentary, Food Evolution, director Scott Hamilton Kennedy came on stage and asked the audience three questions:

                                  “How many of you know what a GMO is?”

                                  “How many of you avoid GMOs?”

                                  “How many fear GMOs will harm you?”

By my estimate, at least 25 percent of the approximately 300 people who filled the theater raised their hands and kept them up for all three questions. At the end of the film when the audience was asked again who believes GMOs will harm you, only two hands went up, hesitantly.

What happened in between speaks volumes about the 92 minutes we all spent together in the dark watching the controversy over genetically modified food unfold on the screen while listening to astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson narrate the tale.

Food Evolution was presented as part of DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary film festival, which showcased over 250 films in three venues in New York City from November 10 – 17, 2016. The description of the film in the event brochure said, in part, “As society tackles the problem of feeding our expanding population safely and sustainably, a schism has arisen between scientists and consumers, motivated by fear and distrust.” Not exactly a block-buster in the making, but the theater was packed.

The film was funded by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) FutureFood 2050 program. Their vision is, “A world where science and innovation are universally accepted as essential to a safe, nutritious, and sustainable food supply for everyone.” To celebrate the IFT’s 75th anniversary, they wanted to tell the story about how we’re going to feed the 9 billion people expected worldwide by 2050.

The movie opened with footage from several town hall meetings in Hawaii where the issue of growing Rainbow Papaya was being debated. One after another, fearful citizens expressed their concerns about using transgenic seeds to combat the ringspot virus that had decimated the papaya crop on the islands. The responses from elected officials confirmed the fears of the farmers and local population that planting genetically engineered crops would be harmful to their health. It also confirmed how little they knew about the science. We were only five minutes into the film and I couldn’t help but think it was going to be a lop-sided affair. Thankfully, I was wrong.

Appearances by Dennis Gonsalves, Ph.D., the Hawaiian native and plant virologist who developed the Rainbow Papaya and Mark Lynas, the British journalist and environmental activist who went from being an organizer of the anti-GMO movement in Europe to a supporter of the technology provided the calm and rational rebuttals to the confusion fueling the controversy. Their remarks were bolstered by the objective and evidence-based interviews with Dr. Robert Fraley, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at Monsanto and Alison Van Eenennaam, Ph.D., Animal Genomics and Biotechnology Extension Specialist at the University of California, Davis. A hat tip to common sense and levity was offered by the Science Guy, Bill Nye.

Those who oppose genetically modified organisms also had their say, from anti-GMO advocate Jeffrey Smith and anti-GMO attorney Andrew Kimbrell to environmental activist Vandana Shiva and food activist Marion Nestle. The levity on that side of the debate was injected by Food Babe, Vani Hari.

The true strength of Food Evolution was the way it confirmed everyone’s biases. It left no doubt that genetic engineering is hard to explain and we are uncomfortable with what we don’t understand. It aptly demonstrated that there are many types of truth and people rarely change their minds once they believe something. And it allowed science to play a central character in the story whether we liked and accepted it or not. Which begs the question, whose science was it?

Food Evolution tells the story of how we can have a safe and a sustainable food supply by helping us put aside divisive emotional and ideological differences. It shows us a truth we can all share. Having seen other less balanced documentaries on the subject of food production in the U.S., I was pleased to see the fair treatment given to this controversial topic. I encourage anyone working in the food-nutrition-agricultural space to see Food Evolution and recommend it to students, journalists and others who are seeking science-based answers about food.

life is good for pigs born on pork farms

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: A Trip to a Pig Farm

This post is about a sponsored trip paid for the National Pork Board. All opinions expressed are my own and I did not receive any compensation to write or share this blog.

I get to do many challenging, interesting and even fun things in my job as a registered dietitian nutritionist and consultant to the food and beverage industry. But this June I got to do something that so exceeded all my expectations I can’t help but share it. And in in keeping with the writing assignments of my childhood each September, I am titling this one, “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.”

A Day at a Pig Farm

My day on the Brenneman Pork farm in Washington County Iowa began with a shower. Not a shower in the comfort of my hotel room, but in the locker rooms at the farm. Everyone who enters the gestation buildings – whether farm workers, Brenneman family members or visitors like me and the nine other dietitians on this excursion – must shower and wash their hair before they can enter. We were provided toiletry kits with the soaps and shampoos we could use and were asked not to apply anything else to our bodies after drying ourselves with the towels they provided. That’s right, no moisturizer, no makeup, no deodorant. We then put on the undergarments and jumpsuits they issued to us, surgical caps to cover our damp hair and colorful rubber boots perfect for puddles!

Ready top greet the pigs

Ready to greet the pigs – covered from head scarfs to rubber boots!

Now that we were clean enough to meet the birthing sows, we entered a barn housing hundreds of them. The air temperature was maintained at constant 70 degrees to keep it comfortable for mothers and babies alike (but a bit warm for the workers and guests) and the air quality was continuously filtered to remove any foreign particles that might harm the pigs.  We all did our best not to sneeze or cough.

Each sow had her own birthing pen equipped with a food and water supply so she could eat on demand. If she had already started to give birth, low-hanging heat lamps were turned on to both dry the newborns and keep them warm as they adjusted to life outside the womb.

A clipboard at the end of each pen was used to record the time of each birth and other pertinent details about the new arrivals. These sows were capable of delivering 14-20 piglets and every one of them was an important part of the success of the Brenneman farm. After all, they were in the pork business.

Giving New Meaning to “Pulled Pork”

The highlight of my trip came when I got to “assist” in the births of two piglets. It can take the sow up to 20 minutes to complete each delivery, and she must continue to nurse the piglets that have already been born throughout the delivery process, so a little help is welcomed.

The job required slipping a long plastic sleeve with a glove at the end over my entire arm. Then I had to get down on my knees and up close to the back end of my sow. Next, a generous squirt of a lubricant was applied to my covered hand so I could work it up the birth canal in pursuit of the next piglet making its way down.

Delivering pigs takes a long arm

Putting on the arm sleeve and glove needed to assist in delivery of a piglet

I felt strong, muscular contractions up the entire length of my arm as I maneuvered my hand deeper into the sow in search of a tennis ball-sized orb that would be a head. I was stunned by how hot it was in there. I imagined this is what it would feel like if I were plunging my arm into bubbling quicksand.  But when I reached my goal, all my thoughts zeroed in on the carefully explained instructions I had received before beginning this important job.  “Wrap two fingers around the head, toward the neck, so you have a firm grip and gently pull the piglet down towards you.” Slowly my arm exited the sow’s body and when my hand emerged there was a 3-4 pound piglet in it. This is what they call “pulling pork” on a pig farm and the experience was absolutely amazing!

Pulling pork requires a long arm

A sow can use a little help when delivering her piglets

Making Bacon Takes a Village

The care and well-being of the piglets was now the focus of everyone on the farm so these animals could reach their full potential and be ready for market in four to five months. Farm workers monitored what they ate, where they slept, and who they played with, among other things, and were vigilant in their efforts to make sure each pig was free of illness and neglect. The pigs I saw looked, smelled and sounded healthy and happy, and I’m convinced that is reflected in the quality of the pork chops, spare ribs and bacon they produce.  I don’t know what more a pig could want out of life?

healthy, happy pigs

Happy, curious juvenile pigs in their playpen

My biggest take-away from the trip was the first-hand knowledge that raising pigs isn’t an easy job. It takes many dedicated people working many demanding hours to produce the best pork possible. It takes a village. Whether you eat pork or not, it’s nice to know the animals are raised with such care and compassion. I only wish all children received the same.

Ugly fruits and vegetables are still nutritious

Reducing Food Waste from Farm and Fork

This post was written as a guest blog for DiscoverMonsanto.com. You can read the original post here.

The first club I joined as a child was the “Clean Plate Club.” My parents, who had made their “Clean Plate Pledge” after World War II in an effort to conserve food at home to help feed our starving European allies, introduced my sisters and me to the club. As a child, I never understood how the uneaten food on my plate could feed someone in another part of the world, but the message stuck with me. I now know that cleaning my plate was not the answer. Buying crooked carrots was.*

As a registered dietitian nutritionist who has spent my career promoting the importance of fruits and vegetables in a nutritious diet, I was shocked to learn that more than half of all fruits and vegetables grown are never eaten. The perishable nature of fresh produce can explain some of this waste, but the rejection of the “funny-looking” ones has become a major contributor to the problem. As a result, I’ve become committed to educating people about the challenges of food waste and what we can do to find solutions.

Food loss
Food loss is an umbrella term used to describe all of the postharvest food that never gets consumed. Some of this loss is unavoidable due to spoilage or processing losses that occur before the food reaches the marketplace. Food waste is a component of food loss. It represents edible food discarded by growers, retailers and consumers that is avoidable. This includes everything from leaving crops in the field due to their odd appearance to letting carefully selected food rot in our refrigerators after we buy it.

If you shop at a farmer’s market or have your own vegetable garden or fruit tree, you know that all apples are not the same diameter and all zucchini are not the same length. Have you ever wondered why you don’t see that much variety in supermarket produce aisles? It’s a chicken or the egg conundrum.

Food waste
Since the beginning of food commerce, every transaction between a produce vendor and his or her customers has been a closely scrutinized exchange. Shoppers have always felt the need to hold, squeeze and smell the peaches to find the best of the bunch. Sellers have vouched for the sweetness of their fruit by offering a slice to taste and a hint for making the perfect pie. This exchange has allowed buyers to gain trust in their produce vendors (if the results were favorable) and the seller to secure a repeat customer.

I know how valuable this relationship is whenever I buy food in an international market. Shoppers with little knowledge of the best quality standards for selecting fruits and vegetables and no attentive vendor to help them with their selection resort to choosing the best-looking items in the bin. When retailers are left with “unaesthetic” pieces they cannot sell, they stop accepting them in their orders. Farmers left with these “misfits” must find a processor willing to pay enough for them to cover the cost of harvesting and transporting them, or simply plow them under.

The produce industry now uses specifications for many crops based on size, color and weight – not what is edible. These specifications not only appeal to the visual cues consumers are using to make a purchase, they also make it easier to pack melons, peppers or tomatoes into boxes that can be evenly stacked on pallets and loaded onto trains, trucks or planes for transport. And once those boxes are in warehouses, their uniform counts and weights expedite the processing of store orders and the successful execution of this week’s schematic display in the produce aisle

As a result, shoppers have become accustomed to seeing only perfect produce, while perfectly edible, but “disfigured,” fruits and vegetables go to waste. After learning more about the food waste issue, I became committed to finding a solution. It came during a visit to the Monsanto research farm in Woodland, California.

While participating in an in-field breeder chat with cucumber breeder Neschit Shetty, Ph.D., I learned that selective breeding was used to grow cucumbers so they would be just the right size to fit into pickle jars. That was an “ah-ha” moment for me! If plant scientists can do that, I realized they can help farmers grow fruits and vegetables that meet the appearance standards consumers now expect in addition to ensuring they’ll taste great, contribute to a balanced diet and be easy to use in our time-stressed lives. These seed breeders can also breed crops to satisfy the environmental concerns of farmers and logistical requirements of retailers so fewer of them are left in the fields.

For me, that is a win-win solution to one piece of the food waste problem. Another is to use smaller dishes so I can keep my credentials in the Clean Plate Club without eating more than I need!

*The popular baby carrots found on every crudité tray are nothing more than “misshapen” carrots that were cut into bite-sized pieces. This was the brainchild of an innovative carrot farmer who wasn’t able to sell his crooked and oversized carrots so decided to have them cut into a smaller size and shape instead of plowing them under. It turned out to be a very profitable idea since consumers are willing to pay more than double for these whittled carrots than the bigger ones they must cut themselves.

Get to know a farmer to really apprecitae what it takes to have a healthy diet

Who’s Growing Your Food?

GET TO KNOW A FARMER BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!

Family farms feed the nation

Family farms provide the bulk of the food we eat.

I met a dirt farmer last week. He was in his 80’s and told me he was thinking about retiring. That’s right; he was still working his land, but said he might be ready to stop soon if he can find someone to take over his job. His story is worth knowing if you care about where your food comes from.

This man’s parents were Spanish immigrants who ended up in Central Valley, CA where more than 230 crops are grown on less than 1 percent of US farmland. Although the fertile soil provided them with a livelihood, they didn’t want their children to be farmers. So when Tony was born his parents decided he should be a dentist!

Tony did work the land while attending school and found he enjoyed the hard labor and long hours it demanded. Then while in college a farmer he had worked for was in an accident and asked Tony if he would bring his crop to market. Without hesitating, Tony left school to help the man. When the farmer realized he would never be able to run his farm again, he and his wife offered it to Tony since they had no children. Again, without hesitating, Tony accepted their offer.

Tony’s parents were furious that he quit school to become a farmer. They offered him no support and predicted he would soon be penniless. In one way they were right. In less than 10 years, at the age of 30, Tony and his young wife had $1,000,000 in mortgages on the land they bought to expand their farm. Tony turned the 50 acres he inherited into 1500 acres and grew everything from potatoes to peas to plums. And he eventually had 4 children to help him out.

One year, right after the last of their melon crop was harvested, boxed and loaded onto trucks to go to market, Tony and his wife decided to take a trip to Boston to visit one of their sons in college there. They got a flight east the next day. On their first morning in the city they took a walk through a nearby farmer’s market. Much to their surprise they found a table stacked with cantaloupes from their farm. The boxes beneath the stand were all the proof they needed that the melons were indeed theirs.

Tony told me it was like a miracle to see those melons in Boston that morning knowing they had been in the ground on his farm just two days earlier. He said that was when he was really able to appreciate what all the hard work was for, and why it was worth it.

Now Tony is ready to stop tilling his land, but his children have all chosen other paths for their lives. His grandchildren, too. So he’s looking for someone to take over for him, someone to mentor. He’s hoping there might be another pre-dental student out there who’d be willing to help him out.

For more information on the future of farming in this country see Family Farms in the United States.

Disclosure: I was visiting Sacramento, CA for an event sponsored by Sunsweet® and Tony is a member of the Sunsweet grower’s cooperative.

two women and a man working in a community garden

Health Benefits of Starting a Garden

This post was originally written during my 2 1/2 year tenure as a blogger for Health Goes Strong. This site was deactivated on July 1, 2013, but you can read the post here.

OUTDOOR GARDENING OFFERS MANY BENEFITS BESIDES FRESH GARDEN VEGETABLES

Don’t you love it when something you’ve always believed to be true is actually proven by research? I’m one of those people who believes outdoor gardening is good for the mind, body, and soul. Now a growing body of evidence supports this notion, too.

I’m not just talking about planting garden vegetables so you can reap all of the nutritional benefits that go with them. Studies show starting a garden is good for you no matter what you grow, or where.

Gardening and Weight Control

The latest study to support my theory was published this month in the American Journal of Public Health. Researchers from the University of Utah found people who tended community gardens weighed less than their neighbors, siblings and spouses who didn’t.

Community gardens have already been shown to provide social benefits to those who till them and nutritional benefits to all who eat the harvest. This study confirms that those who get their hands dirty also have lower body mass indexes (BMI) and lower odds of being overweight or obese.

The study only looked at a small community in Utah, so cannot be interpreted to be true for the population at large, but I think we can expect to see similar results when a larger study is conducted.

Another thing the study does not answer is whether lower weight people are drawn to gardening, or whether gardening makes them lighter? What do you think?

Gardening and Mental Health

A study just published in Psychological Sciences, the journal of the Association for Psychological Sciences, made a strong case for the benefits of gardens, even if you don’t til them. It found people who live near parks, gardens or other green space report a greater sense of well-being than city dwellers who don’t get to see much outdoor greenery.

The researchers analyzed data collected from households in the United Kingdom and found individuals who lived in greener areas reported less mental distress and higher satisfaction with life. This more positive outlook held up even across differences in income, employment, marital status, physical health and housing type.

This study did not prove that moving to a greener neighborhood will make you happier, but does support findings from other research that shows short bouts of time in green space can improve mood and cognitive functioning.

Since April is National Garden Month, I can’t think of a better time to get outside and do some gardening. Whether you plant vegetables, flowers, herbs, shrubs, trees or grass, starting garden is good for your health!

Psychological Benefits of Gardening

  • Nurture your natural instincts
  • Cultivate your sense of patience
  • Explore your creativity
  • Relieve your stress
  • Lessen your anxiety
  • Improve your mood

Physical Benefits of Gardening

  • Eat more fresh produce!
  • Strengthen your muscles
  • Burn some calories
  • Breathe in fresh air
  • Make vitamin D from sunshine
  • Sleep more soundly

What’s growing in your garden?

Visit a pick your own farm to get the best produce of the season

All-You-Need-To-Know Guide to Pick Your Own Produce

IF YOU CAN’T GROW YOUR OWN, A PICK YOU OWN FARM IS THE NEXT BEST THING

This post was originally written during my 2 1/2 year tenure as a blogger for Health Goes Strong. The site was deactivated on July 1, 2013, so the post has been reproduced here.

Even if you can’t grow your own produce, that doesn’t mean you can’t pick your own. Every state has PYO or U-Pick farms – including Alaska – that make it possible. It’s fun, invigorating and a great way to get the freshest fruits and vegetables when ripe for the picking.

Growing up in New Jersey, blueberry picking was our thing. My mother would allow my two sisters and me to each invite a friend because she wanted all the free labor she could get. Our nimble fingers were perfectly suited to grasping the plump berries and filling our beach pails. I will always associate those trips with the Fourth of July because we came home red, white and blue from the sun-burn and stained fingers!

Why not plan an outing with your own kids, grandkids or like-minded friends? Check here to find the PYO farms in your state and what’s in season. The site provides pretty much everything else you need to know about picking your own produce as well.

Helpful Hints Before U-Pick

Call the farm first to get the most up-to-date information about crop availability. Weather conditions can alter ripening by a few days or weeks.

Have a back-up plan in case it rains once you get there, such as a visit to a local historic site or other points of interest.

Check with your local food bank about donating any excess crops you pick or grow yourself.

What to Bring

  • Small containers that are easy to carry when picking if the farm does not provide their own. Depending on the crop, you may need pails with handles, single-strap shoulder bags, or sturdy sacks you can drag.
  • Larger containers to transfer your harvest into for weighing, volume check or count. Sturdy cardboard boxes or woven bushel baskets are suitable. Use smaller containers, such as plastic produce baskets, for delicate fruits so they don’t get crushed by packing too deep.
  • Optional pail to fill with water and use to rinse produce before packing
  • Picnic coolers with ice packs if it’s very hot and crops will be in a closed car for a long time
  • Snipping shears or small knife to cut stems
  • Plastic zip-top bags for herbs
  • Drinks to stay hydrated all day
  • Meal and/or snacks depending on how long you will be picking
  • Picnic blanket to use when you eat, preferably under a shade tree
  • Hand sanitizer and/or disposable wipes to clean up before eating and at the end of the day
  • Cash, check or an accepted credit card – inquire with the farm first
  • Camera if you want to capture the memories!

What to Wear

  • Sunscreen on all exposed skin and possibly insect repellent if in a marshy area
  • Old clothes that you won’t worry about getting stained
  • Pants and long-sleeved shirt if picking from thorny plants or climbing ladders to reach into tree branches
  • Layers if starting in cooler morning hours that may grow warmer
  • Wide-brimmed hat and neck shield if out in full sun
  • Sunglasses or protective lenses if picking where branches may brush the eyes or face
  • Gloves, if preferred
  • Comfortable, enclosed shoes, such as old sneakers, that can withstand mud
  • Back brace if not used to a lot of bending

Alternatives to Picking When Visiting the Farm

  • Farm tours & Petting Zoos
  • Worm beds & Bee Hives
  • Jam Making, Canning & Preserving
  • Herb & Flower Drying
  • Homemade Ice Cream Churns
  • Hayrides & Sleigh-Rides
  • Apple Cider & Wine Presses
  • Corn Mazes & Haunted Pumpkin Patches
  • Cut-Your-Own Christmas Trees & Wreath-Making
  • Gift shops with supplies, cookbooks, and homemade foods
  • Seasonal Festivals featuring a particular crop

I’m ready for peaches and raspberries, what’s on your list?

Keep this Guide handy along with my All-You-Need-to-Know Guide on Shopping in Local Farm Markets

Fears of pesticides in produce may keep people from eating recommended servings of fruits and vegetables

Do You Worry About Pesticides in Produce?

FEARS OF PESTICIDES IN PRODUCE MAY KEEP PEOPLE FROM EATING RECOMMENDED SERVINGS OF FRUITS AND VEGETABLES

This post was originally written during my 2 1/2 year tenure as a blogger for Health Goes Strong. This site was deactivated on July 1, 2013, but you can read the post here.

Am I the only one who found it odd that the 2012 report on Pesticides in Produce was released this week, right in the middle of Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Month? Stranger still, the report arrived just one day before the start of summer when many people across the country look forward to shopping at their local farm markets.

Talk about taking the spin out of your salad…

Why All the Fuss About Produce?

I do my best to encourage clients and readers to fill up on fruits and vegetables every day of the year, not just in June. The Dietary Guidelines recommend from 5 to 10 servings a day for those with caloric intakes between 1200 and 2400. Yet a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found less than a third of Americans consume even the minimum of five servings a day.

The reasons people don’t reach those goals are as varied as the salad dressings lining their refrigerator doors. Now we have to contend with the latest release of the Dirty Dozen in the produce aisles. That’s a list of the 12 fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticide residues published by the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

As a consolation prize, they also identify a list of the 15 fruits and vegetables with the lowest pesticide residues, known as the Clean 15™.

What’s Wrong With the Pesticides in Produce™ Report?

I have two big issues with these lists. First, they undermine the more important objective of getting Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables. There is no single dietary change that can produce more health benefits than reaching that goal. And while the report does encourage people to keep eating produce, that message is lost in the sensationalized coverage of the dangers of the Dirty Dozen™.

My second issue with those lists is that they use measurements of pesticide residue as a sign of a problem without providing any evidence that they pose a risk to our health. Sure, it sounds alarming, but what would be the quality, quantity, and cost of our produce if no pesticides were used?

If you think the answer lies in buying only organically grown produce, you’re in for a surprise. They are not 100% pesticide free, either.

So what can you do? Here’s my check list to help you with your produce purchases.

Getting the Best Value From the Fruits and Vegetables You Buy

[ ] Buy produce in all forms: fresh, frozen, canned, dried and juice

[ ] Change the variety of the fresh produce you buy with the seasons

[ ] Wash everything you buy, even things with a skin or peel you discard

[ ] Limit the use of imported produce since pesticide regulations are different outside the US

[ ] Use organically grown if you are juicing large amounts for daily consumption

What would make it easier for you to eat 5 or more servings of produce each day?

Use these tips to shop at local farm markets this summer

Shopping at Local Farm Markets: All-You-Need-To-Know Guide

USE THESE TIPS TO SHOP AT LOCAL FARM MARKETS THIS SUMMER

This post was originally written during my 2 1/2 year tenure as a blogger for Health Goes Strong. The site was deactivated on July 1, 2013, so the post has been reproduced here.

There’s nothing better than visiting local farm markets to buy fresh produce. That is, unless you grow your own. I’m lucky enough to do both.

Each summer I grow what I can in my backyard and shop from the back of pick-up trucks and simple road-side stands for the rest. If you’ve never shopped at a farmer’s market before, it’s time to start!

Why Shop at Farm Markets?

Buying fresh, seasonal and locally produced food has nutritional and environmental benefits and helps support the farmers in your area. Of course, you will still have to buy produce in your grocery store since no part of the country grows everything you may need – especially if you like bananas – but your first stop should be the farm stand.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has made it easy to find farm markets in every state. Just plug in your zip code on the Agriculture Marketing Service site to get market locations in your area and information about what’s in season and forms of payment accepted.

If you prefer to buy organically grown produce you will find the prices much better than those charged in health food stores and supermarkets. Farms that have received organic certification will display a sign on their stand, but it’s worth asking the others. Since getting certified is a costly process, many farmers use organic growing methods and skip the certification.

Tips on What to Buy

  • Check your calendar before arriving to have an idea of how many meals you’ll be shopping for in the coming week.
  • Carry a cookbook to get recipe ideas for less familiar products.
  • Be flexible with your menu plans, the market only carries what’s ripe and recently harvested.
  • Ask the farmer to identify unfamiliar items and how to prepare them. They love to share ideas.
  • Don’t forget some flowers for the table!

Tips on How to Shop

  • Bring cash, preferably smaller bills.
  • Tote your own bags for individual items and a strong satchel to put everything in.
  • Use saved plastic baskets or other plastic containers with lids for delicate berries, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes.
  • Put a cooler in the car if produce will be left in it for any length of time on hot days.

Tips on Buying in Bulk (for Canning, Drying & Freezing)

  • Prices drop after the first harvest of any crop. If you want a quantity of something, wait until the second or third week it’s for sale. (Ask the farmer for expected harvest dates.)
  • Request “seconds,” the slightly bruised pieces that are fine for jams and pies. Farmers are happy to sell them for less.
  • Arrive later in the day to get close-out deals.
  • Buy fresh herbs to make pesto.

Watch for my upcoming story on pick-your-own fruit and vegetable farms – the perfect combination of food and fitness in a fun afternoon!