UC Food Blog
School food service is a multibillion dollar industry that impacts the lives of over 30 million (mostly) low-income students. Every school day and, with increasing frequency, during summer weekdays as well, this industry provides two-thirds of students' meals (breakfast and lunch), as well as snacks, contributing a large portion of the nutrients youth consume throughout their childhoods. To qualify for a free school lunch, a family of three must make less than $26,208 in 2016-17.
School food service directors have a huge charge on their hands: feed kids, every day, with a lot of requirements, for very little money. The current reimbursement rate for free meals provided to students in California is $3.31, which is required to include at least ½ cup of fruit or vegetables, and the choice to select a whole grain food, a protein food, and low-fat or non-fat milk. Elementary school kids from higher-income homes pay around $3 for the same meals.
So, when a canned mandarin from China is more economical than a local pixie tangerine, how does this impact food service directors' decisions to make sustainable and healthy food selections?
According to the San Luis Coastal Unified food service director, Erin Primer, food service directors have a lot of power to make healthy (or not so healthy) selections. Primer is a school food champion, who some have said is “murdering the lunch lady game.” Primer's first venture into institutional food service was in the private industry and catering. She learned how to get things done, how to be competitive and, ultimately, how to serve a lot of food that people want to eat.
Primer credits this background with enabling her to see things more creatively.
“Because of my background with catering, I was never limited by what school food says we can't do," Primer said. "I never let that burden me. When I came to school food, I loved the freedom to problem solve and connect all the dots with all the requirements, and then just feeding the kids.”
How do you feed kids healthy food while considering the broader impact of food purchasing decisions? Primer says it comes down to participation, it is a game of numbers. How many students and families will choose to eat a school meal on any given day? For Primer, that's about 3,000 lunches and 2,000 breakfasts every day - a number she would like to see grow.
What are some strategies to increase participation so more kids are eating school lunch? To Primer, and many food service directors that are rising to the challenge of feeding our next generation, it's about serving good food. It is easy to get stuck in the weeds of the regulatory environment of school food; and, while following the guidelines is incredibly important, it is also important to think about the food you are serving. Primer says she likes to think about the whole plate and what actually makes sense to serve to kids. You have to keep going back to asking yourself: “Will kids eat it?” and “Does it make sense?”
“We started with asking ourselves, does it taste good? Is it good quality? Is it sending the message we want to send? And if it's not, let's not do it, Primer said.
One of the biggest changes Primer has made to her menus is first, getting rid of the junk. In the world of school food, you can find chocolate doughnuts and cinnamon-sugar cereals that meet USDA regulations for the school meal program. In many cases, food processing companies have reformulated popular food items specifically to meet requirements. By adding in whole grains, or reducing the sugar, fat or sodium content in a product, they can be sold at school even if you could never find that same version of the product in the store. When students see these products at school it can send them mixed messages about what should be included as a regular part of a healthy diet.
The next change she made and continues to make includes increasing the purchase of local foods and removing items that can't be obtained locally. She is able to serve local, grass fed beef on the menu in a “blended burger” which includes mushrooms to make it larger, tastier and economically feasible. She also became one of the first school food service directors to use local grains by featuring emmer farro from a farmer that is less than 15 miles from her office. In addition, she has made some waves by replacing bananas on her menu with other local fruits, like kiwi.
Living on the central coast of California, there is an abundance of local foods available most months of the year. However, “local” does not need to be barrier for food service directors. Defining what is “local” or “regional” is up to each district or institution, who should take into consideration the surrounding agricultural landscape, seasons, and what foods are reliably available.
The last, but really important, step that Primer is working on is telling her story. Working with partners in creative ways, Primer is working hard to sell school food to all families in her district, regardless of their incomes. Her goal is to make meals that all kids want to eat and parents want to buy. She has her delivery trucks wrapped in pictures promoting the local foods they serve each day and she talks to local stakeholders, teachers, parents and school board members at every opportunity.
What are we feeding our kids? Where did it come from? How do our purchasing decisions impact our world?
These are the questions being tackled by school and institutional food service directors every day, whether they are aware of it or not. How they choose to answer those questions will have broad reaching impacts on our communities and future generations.
Will machines replace the romance of the hand-cultivated wine grape vineyard? A “touchless” vineyard was among the latest research on labor shortages, weeds and pest management by UC Cooperative Extension scientists discussed at Grape Day at the UC Davis Oakville Station, located in the epicenter of California wine country, on June 6.
About 200 wine grape growers, vineyard consultants and other industry people attended to learn about the latest UC Cooperative Extension research. Vineyard managers from boutique wineries such as Fork in the Road to Pine Ridge Vineyards to the Fortune 500 wine company Constellation Brands gathered at the research station's experimental vineyard. Several vineyard equipment representatives brought their machines to the field to demonstrate their weeding, pruning and canopy management capabilities.
Addressing labor shortages
To help growers attract and retain farm workers, Monica Cooper, UC Cooperative Extension advisor for Napa County and her research assistant, Malcolm Hobbs, are conducting a survey of agricultural workers to determine the factors that affect job satisfaction. They found the number of female workers in Napa County has increased rapidly since 2013. “Women may be moving into the labor pool to fill vacancies caused by the decline in the number of male workers migrating to the U.S. for agricultural work,” Cooper said.
They plan to provide participating companies with custom recommendations for recruiting and retaining workers.
“We will also be generating a generic summary that will be widely shared with participants and non-participants at the close of the study. For now, we cannot make any general conclusions or recommendations because data collection is ongoing,” Cooper said. “We are aiming to distribute our final report this winter, so stay tuned.”
To help growers reduce their need for hand labor, UC Cooperative Extension viticulture specialist Kaan Kurtural designed a “touchless” demonstration vineyard that is mechanically managed. The mechanized vineyard is one of six trellis systems he is studying for water use, nitrogen use efficiency, yield and fruit quality of the wine grapes.
“We're always looking for ways to improve yield, quality and to reduce cost,” said Francisco Araujo, director of viticulture for Atlas Vineyard Management. “In light of the labor shortage we're facing right now, Kaan is exploring new production systems that include new trellises, mechanization, different types of mechanization from pruning to shoot thinning and trunk suckering. He's obtaining information about how these new trellis systems that he is investigating are going to play with yield and quality.”
The touchless vineyard experiment started out as a demonstration at first, but with grower interest, it turned into a full-blown research project.
“It started as way of saving labor costs, but when we started looking at the physiological aspects of how these plants grow, we saw the benefits from the quality point of view in addition to the labor savings,” said Kurtural, who is based in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis.
A traditional vineyard in the Napa area is about a meter or 36 inches above the vineyard floor with vertical shoots held up with wires, which are moved by hand.
“We said, ‘Why don't we turn the system upside down?' Grow a tall trunk then put the bilateral cordon about 62 inches above the vineyard floor, that way we can push the rows a lot closer,” said Kurtural, who oversees the 40-acre Oakville experimental vineyard. The leaves grow down to generate the same leaf area as a traditional vineyard, but the leaves in the mechanized vineyard use water more efficiently so the no-touch vineyard requires less water compared to traditional vineyard systems.
“This is a dense system, this is 1.5 meters by 2 meters, roughly 1,340 plants per acre – we're getting by here on a third to quarter acre foot of water,” Kurtural said.
“It costs us roughly about a dollar in labor operation costs to manage each plant in a traditionally farmed vineyard of roughly about 1,300 plants per acre on the North Coast now,” Kurtural said. “The no-touch plants are costing us about 7 cents in labor operations costs.”
“The biggest expense is pruning, after that we go through what they call trunk suckering, which is also done mechanically here, and after that they will do shoot removal to open up the canopy. That's also done mechanically. After that, if there's need, they will do leaf removal, that's also done mechanically. And one last resort, if there's too much crop here, they will shake off excess berries with a harvester.”
The conventional system yields up to 5 to 6 tons per acre whereas the mechanized vineyard yields 7 to 8 tons per acre.
“These clusters set far fewer berries than a traditionally managed vineyard, but the berry size is also very small, which is what the winemakers like,” he said.
During harvest, grapes picked by machine are sorted on board the harvester so they go into the winery in uniform sizes, whereas hand-harvested grapes have to be sorted on a tray before they are put into the press tank.
“We made wines from these last year and compared to our traditionally farmed vineyards. Until we tell people what it is, they cannot distinguish the quality of the fruit or the wine.”
Weed and pest management
John Roncoroni, UCCE weed science farm advisor in Napa County, discussed options for weed control among young grape vines.
In the past, many vineyards were fumigated before planting for disease control, but it also provided weed control for young vines.
“With the loss of most fumigants for use in vineyards, hand-weeding was often used to accomplish this task,” Roncoroni said. “Increased costs and decreased labor force have made hand weeding impractical. Mechanical cultivation, at this point, is too imprecise – either leaving weeds close to young vines or causing damage by being too close.”
Covers on young vines allow the use of many post-emergence herbicides to control weeds, but Roncoroni cautioned that application of post-emergence herbicides on vines that aren't protected by mature bark may damage or even kill the vine.
“Herbicide use on vines less than 3 years old is a risky endeavor,” Roncoroni said. “Follow all label requirements, paying special attention to soil and irrigation recommendations.”
Lynn Wunderlich, UC Cooperative Extension advisor for the Central Sierra, and Franz Niederholzer, UC Cooperative Extension advisor for Colusa, Sutter and Yuba counties, demonstrated how to calibrate sprayers and to get uniform coverage when spraying fungicides.
In 2016, UC Davis researchers identified the three-cornered alfalfa hopper, Spissistilus festinus, as a vector of grapevine red blotch virus. Cindy Preto, a Ph.D candidate in the UC Davis Department of Entomology who is assisting UC scientists studying the three-cornered alfalfa hopper's biology and host plants, provided an update on their research.
Araujo, the viticulture consultant, said he and his colleagues value the university's research. “Napa Valley is a place where quality is paramount yet more and more we have labor shortage, we have inflation, production costs are going up,” he said. “Finding a way to get maximum quality along with yield levels that will pay for the increasing costs of production is the only way we'll be sustainable now and in the future.”
Throughout Humboldt and Del Norte counties, the UC Master Food Preserver Program is actively engaging with tribal members. In fact, the UC Master Food Preserver volunteers have been “jamming it up” since 2017 with over 15 workshops for tribal community members.
Kella Roberts, of United Indian Health Services, has helped more than 280 community members improve their health and wellness - one jar, one dehydrator, one freezer bag at a time. Their workshops support existing efforts in the tribal communities to empower individuals, families, tribes, and the community to make healthy choices.
Roberts, along with her fellow UC Master Food Preserver volunteers, deserve recognition for coordinating and delivering food preservation classes to new audiences. They've adopted methods to help those with diabetes by limiting the sugar in recipes, and taught four workshops on ginger zucchini orange marmalade and strawberry jam using pectin.
Over 130 youth and adults across four workshops went through the hands-on process of mashing and drying berries to make strawberry and beet fruit leather.
Roberts kept the crunch going by teaching workshops on kosher dills, pickled green beans and pickled beets. Kale chips were another crunchy treat with healthful benefits that were highlighted at a Hands on Health Conference workshop. Other healthy food preservation workshops included smooth applesauce and fruit dehydration.
To increase participation, these workshops were held at sites where tribal members already meet and live, including the Bear River Band of Rohnerville Rancheria, Big Lagoon Rancheria, Blue Lake Rancheria, Cher-Ae Heights Indian Community of the Trinidad Rancheria, Elk Valley Rancheria, Resighini Rancheria, Wiyot Tribe, Tolowa Dee-Ni' Nation, and the Yurok Reservation.
Find a UC Master Food Preserver Program near you to get involved in sharing home food preservation techniques with your community. The program uses research-based methods to deliver home food preservation methods to Californians.
Slugs, snails, ants, aphids, spider mites and inclement weather conspire against strawberry growers harvesting perfect red berries to sell.
“Farming is hard work,” said Fam Lee, as she pulled a weed from a row of strawberry plants. Lee and her husband Nathan Punh are among about 60 Mien farmers in the Sacramento area who call on Margaret Lloyd, a UC Cooperative Extension advisor, for farming advice.
“Although we are not organic farmers, we always want to go with organic,” said Lee. “For example, we have slugs and ants, I asked Margaret if it's okay to put organic slug bait around the plant as long as it doesn't touch the berry. She said that's the best way to do. We work closely with our extension staff.”
In the Sacramento area, many of the Mien-owned farms are husband and wife teams. The typical couple farms an acre or two themselves, picking berries to sell the same day at a roadside stand, which provides the family's primary source of income.
“Many of them grew up on farms in Thailand or Laos growing vegetables or growing rice or soybeans,” said Lloyd, who serves small-scale farmers in Sacramento, Solano and Yolo counties. “A lot of them come from farming backgrounds so when they came to this country, they also sought out an agrarian lifestyle.”
Some Mien growers had never seen a strawberry before arriving in California, but chose the high-value crop to maximize returns on their small plots of land.
To help Mien growers develop successful strawberry farms, Lloyd updates them on regulations and shares growing tips at an annual extension meeting, visits them at their farms, and records videos demonstrating how to do things such as using compost to fertilize the crop.
“Because of language barriers, coming out to the farm regularly is a big part of the job,” said Lloyd, who partners with staff from the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) to assist Mien farmers.
“Once we're on the farm, we can communicate in-person more easily,” she said. “Often times it involves pest identification, so I'll show them how to use a hand lens and how to identify spider mites, aphids and lygus bugs, for example.”
“A lot of them have children who speak English fluently so if they don't speak English fluently, sometimes the children come out and help.”
For the past five years, Lee and Punh have been growing and selling strawberries at a farm stand on Bond Road, between Bader and Bradshaw, in Sacramento. They grow Albion, Chandler, Santa Rosa and Seascape – sweet, delicate varieties, some of which aren't found in supermarkets because the berries don't store and ship as well. They typically begin harvesting berries at the end of March and pick through July or August, depending on the weather. This year, the first berries were ruined by spring rain and frost.
Savvy consumers will ask for certain varieties by name, Lloyd said. “Chandler is well-loved by consumers for its delicate flesh and sweet flavor. Albion produces larger berries that are also very tasty.”
Because berries sold at the roadside stands are picked fresh daily, the farmers wait until berries are perfectly ripe before picking them.
Monday through Saturday, Lee begins harvesting her strawberries by hand at the break of dawn.
“We start at 5:45, the minute we can see, and we pick until 8 o'clock. That's our goal,” Lee said. “By 8:30, we want to open our stand and we sell until all the berries run out.”
Lee's parents often drive up from Alameda to help pick berries.
To extend the farm stand season, some Mien farmers supplement the strawberries with other berries, strawberry jam and vegetables. They grow blueberries and blackberries, tomatoes, peppers and green beans and sometimes specialty vegetables such as bittermelon.
“Growing strawberries isn't easy, but it's enjoyable work,” Lee said.
Lloyd has updated a map showing locations of about 60 strawberry stands in the Sacramento area at http://bit.ly/strawberrystands.
When school's out, many children who live in poverty no longer eat nutritious meals like they do during school as part of the free and reduced-cost school lunch program.
UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) in Sacramento County has joined a coalition to promote the summer meals program, which is aiming to serve one million meals during summer 2018.
The coalition was formed by State Sen. Richard Pan, who invited Sacramento students to the State Capitol for a picnic May 22 launching the “Million Meals Summer.”
“In Sacramento County, on average 1.9 million free or reduced-price lunches are served each month while school is in session,” said Sen. Pan. “For so many of these children, school meals are their primary source of nutrition.”
In the summertime, the number of lunches served drops to less than 10 percent of the school-year number.
“Over the last couple of years, my office has worked with a growing number of organizations to help close the gap of child nutrition,” Sen. Pan said.
At the picnic, Sen. Pan, a pediatrician, reminded the children that eating healthy through the summer will get them ready to learn when school starts again.
Sen. Pan said Kim Frinzel, associate director of the California Department of Education nutrition services division, is leading the effort to set up sufficient meal sites and encourage children to attend.
“You get a great meal,” Frinzel told the students. “You get to hang out with your friends. And you get to participate in fun activities. Clap if you will help us serve a million meals.”
Vanessa Kenyon, EFNEP program supervisor for Sacramento and San Joaquin counties, said EFNEP will provide nutrition education training for Samuel Merritt University nurses-in-training.
“Summer meals are provided at 140 sites in Sacramento County. If the children stick around after eating, they can take part in enrichment programs. The student nurses will fulfill a portion of their service hours by sharing nutrition education resources and activities at the meal sites,” Kenyon said.
The UC EFNEP program, which serves 24 counties in California, assists limited-resource families gain the knowledge and skills to choose nutritionally sound diets and improve well-being.
The United Way California Capital Region heads the coalition of community, business and state partners supporting the Million Meals Summer in Sacramento County.