Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Happy New Year!

My Wish for 2012: Kale for Everyone!

2012! It's time to get serious about good (sustainable, healthy, humane) food, people. 

Here are a few great links to recommit you to better eating, and better purchasing, in the coming year:

  • The Grist Food Recaps of 2011: The Good Food News (yes, there was some!). And the Bad Food News (yes, there was more of this type). Just remember, as Thoreau said, "Things don't change. We change." Go make the difference in 2012.
  • GMO production: Want to know what a GMO crop is and how it's created? This scientifically understandable little video helps explain the evolution of genetically modified crops and what exactly you are putting into your body when you eat one.
  • Diane Rehm show on WAMU-DC: Tuesday's Diane Rehm show featured a great panel discussing GMO labeling and food products. Download the podcast on your iPod and listen to it while you meet that exercise resolution. Then, go sign the petition to get GMO foods labeled in America.
  • A look back at the food politics scene in 2011: I believe pieces like this are important. We need to understand the relationship between government and Big Food/Agricultural companies. Although it would be nice to trust the government has the consumer's best interests at heart, this isn't always the case. (For a glimpse back at the Michelle Obama Let's Move program, in particular, check out this recap.)
  • Marion Nestle predicts the future: The witty and informative Nestle gives a somewhat bleak picture of the food politics landscape in 2012. 
  • BigAg tries to get all touchy-feely: Check out how large food corporations are now trying marketing that makes them look like small farmers. Educate yourself so you're not fooled by these sneaky tactics. 
  • Barry Estabrook's (From) Where's the Beef?: A brief look at two very different types of operations for raising cattle for slaughter. Where would you prefer your meat came from?
  • The Zombie Burger from McD's: A fun (but not funny) article about a woman who's been keeping a McDonald's cheeseburger on her counter for over a year. And it hasn't changed a bit. Yick.
  • Mark Bittman's column in this weekend's New York Times Magazine: A great collection of easy, semi-vegan meals to help improve your eating in 2012 in both a nutritionally and environmentally sound way. I'm looking forward to trying the Bean Burgers, Tomato-Rice Soup and that little Chickpea-Spinach number.
  • A couple of other big and recent new stories: Shortages are beginning to be seen on organic milk. Look for more on this in coming days. Also, the FDA has quietly backed down on trying to prevent antibiotic use in livestock. This debate isn't over though. An appearance in a higher court may be imminent. 
  • Incentivizing the use of SNAP dollars: This is an issue close to my heart, since I work mostly with populations struggling to make ends meet. Ideas like this to level the playing field of healthy food access are always of interest to me.  
  • NYC Farmer's Market EBT/SNAP usage up 23%: In the same vein, here's an uplifting little segment on how NYC markets are drawing larger crowds of food stamp/SNAP users. 
Speaking of which...
I'm currently working with a few other DC food justice folks to organize a screening of Food Stamped, a  documentary getting some great buzz on Twitter and listservs. I believe raising awareness about the difficulties of eating nutritionally on a budget is important for all demographics to truly generate change.

What are your food related goals and resolutions for 2012?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dessert Dilemmas

I'm not a fan of teaching dessert classes, because, no matter how you cut it, sugar is just not healthy. Still, realistically, people eat dessert (*I* eat dessert), so I know giving them better options can be useful. I guess I'm always a little wary that somehow the message will come across as "you should eat dessert" not "if you have to eat dessert, these options are preferable".

In last night's Unity healthcare class we made three quick and easy options. The kids were decidedly NOT excited about putting fruit on their ice cream, but it is my way or the highway in the classes. And guess what? Once they tried it, they liked it. One kid even asked for just a dish of frozen blueberries- which truly is the perfect dessert.

Some of our kids helping to dip pretzels

Peanut Butter and Chocolate Dipped Pretzels

There is no redeeming nutritional value in this dessert at all. However, if you've got a few spare calories, it's a lower-fat way to get that peanut butter chocolate taste.

4 ounces semisweet chocolate
1/4 cup creamy peanut butter
1 bag of small pretzel twists/sticks
  1. Melt chocolate in a small pot. Stir in peanut butter until smooth.
  2. Dip one end of pretzel stick in mixture and then lay on a cookie sheet covered in foil or parchment paper. 
  3. Chill in refrigerator for 30 minutes or until firm.
Blueberries with Lemon Cream
Blueberries are packed with antioxidants, so here you at least get a bit of nutritional value. I sometimes serve this on a graham cracker for kids.

4 ounces reduced-fat cream cheese, (Neufchatel)
3/4 cup low-fat vanilla yogurt
1 teaspoon honey
2 teaspoons freshly grated lemon zest
2 cups fresh or frozen (thawed) blueberries
  1. Soften cream cheese and break up with a fork in a bowl. Drain any excess liquid off yogurt and add to cream cheese along with honey.
  2. Beat with a mixer or whisk until smooth. Fold in lemon zest.
  3. Sprinkle with blueberries and serve.
Fruit Coulis over Vanilla Ice Cream
Not all ice cream and yogurt is created equal. Look for a brand (in big names, Breyer is not terrible) that has 6 ingredients or less and make sure they are all items you recognize. Avoid low-fat ice creams that don't give you the same sense of fullness/satisfaction and are packed with chemicals and additives.
2 bags frozen fruit (berries, tropical fruit, etc.)
Sugar or maple syrup
Lemon (for juice or zest)
Vanilla Ice Cream or vanilla yogurt (check ingredients!) for serving 
  1. Heat berries over medium-low heat with about 2 tbsp to 1/4 cup of sugar or maple syrup (use as little as you can while still making it palatable- when berries are sweet and in season, you may not even need to use any). Stir constantly. 
  2. Continue to cook about 10-20 minutes until berries begin to break down. Add squeeze of lemon juice or sprinkle of zest and stir.
  3. Cool slightly and serve over ice cream or yogurt.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Thank You for Teaching Us Healthy Cooking, but You Could Use Some Help in the Dating Department

This year, I added a great new client to my class schedule- the Even Start program in Arlington, Virginia. Even Start is a national program that helps economically challenged families build literacy skills. It is designed to strengthen the child's education by helping the parent become self-sufficient in English language skills. At the Arlington branch, most of the clients are from Spanish-speaking countries. In addition to writing, speaking and reading tutoring, classes also encompass other life skills such as budgeting/math, managing a household and nutrition. In the fall, I began doing a monthly lesson on healthy eating/cooking on a budget.

The ladies in the program are so friendly and welcoming. As with my other classes, many already know how to cook quite well. Most of the women are eager to share techniques and tips for encouraging their families to eat more produce, as well as challenges they would like to conquer in the grocery store and the kitchen. One of our more recent classes was on choosing a better breakfast. A lot of the mothers are off to a good start, often preparing eggs and homemade tortillas before school. We talked about ways to incorporate more vegetables into this offering. Afterwards, we sampled something newer to most of the women- oatmeal.

Here's a peak at that lesson:

We took a peak at the labels on these items and evaluated their nutritional content. Marketing and false advertising were also discussed (hey! there's no blueberries in those blueberry Special K bars!). It was explained why starting the day with sugar is not the best way to go and how vitamins get into foods with no inherent nutritional content. (Here's a hint: They're sprayed on the food in the factory.)

Then, we looked at a more affordable, more nutritious and almost as convenient of an option: Oatmeal.

The class made a personalized version of this quick and nutritious breakfast. (Although the pictured products are organic, we don't focus on that.) You will notice that I busted out my mad Spanish skills in the recipe.

Oatmeal with Fruit and Cinnamon
Plain Oatmeal/avena molida ($3.79/42 oz. container; about $0.27/serving...1/2 cup dry)
Dried Fruit-raisins or cranberries/pasas ($3.99/24 oz container; about $0.17/serving)
Frozen Fruit (strawberries, blackberries, etc. see above cost)- can use fresh when in season
Apple/manzana ($0.75/depends on type; $0.37/serving- 1/2 apple)
Splash of Milk/leche
Cinnamon/canela ($1.67/container; $0.06/serving- 1 teaspoon)
Brown Sugar/azucar moreno ($1.29/box; $0.15/serving- about 1-2 tablespoons)...use a little less each time you make it
  1. Cook oatmeal with water according to package directions.  Add fruit as desired to oatmeal/water.  Sprinkle on cinnamon and brown sugar.  Stir occasionally for about 10 minutes. To thicken and enrich, throw in a splash of milk/cream as desired. Sprinkle with chopped nuts, if desired.
Cost per serving-approx $1.20

The class recently practiced their new skills by sending me these amazing Thanksgiving cards. (I might have cried when I opened them.) My favorite one was that carrot in the center that read, "Thank you for teaching us the healthy cooking. Also, I hope that you find a good husband."

Hey, we've all got areas for improvement, right?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Follow the Farmer!

This is not Relly Bub Farm. It is a farm in Maryland. But, still, it is a farm.
I've been wanting to learn more about what it takes to run a small farm. Actually, let me clarify that. I've been wanting to learn more about what it takes to run a small farm without running one myself. (I know my limits. And my limits are...way too lazy to operate a farm. Plus, I can't even keep a basil plant alive.) Farmers are beyond impressive people...they not only have to have book smarts (do you know the knowledge you need to run a sustainable farming operation??), but physical stamina (most small farmers can't afford a ton of workers and are usually doing much - if not all- of the field work themselves), patience (oh! so much patience! getting a farm up and going can take so much time) and resilience (sustainable farming practices require adaptability to weather and other unforeseen events). In short, farming requires a whole lot of things that I do not possess.

It also requires a farm. I have a one bedroom apartment.

Lucky for me, I ran across Nathan Winters (@follownathan) on Twitter. (Oh how I love the Twitter for connecting people.) Nathan was once a tech and marketing guy in a big city before he decided to switch paths and learn about farming instead. He spent the better part of a year traveling around and working on small and organic farms, eventually settling in Vermont. His values related to food (go read them here) are very similar (if not identical) to mine. Except, you know, he's actually going to GROW it.

Relly Bub Farm is located just outside of Wilmington, Vermont, and I'm terribly excited to be following Nathan's adventures there. I hope he'll allow me to share some of them with you here on this site, too. Until then, you can check him out at the Relly Bub Farm site and blog.  I can't wait to go and visit once the spring season is under way!

I think more now than I ever have about who grows, produces or manufactures (yick!) food in our country. I'm very excited to follow an actual farmer and hear first hand what running a small farm is like. I hope it gives me an even greater appreciation of what it takes to put food on my plate. And maybe you, too.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

I Thought About Titling This Post "Healthcare with a Heart", But I Am Not Cheesy So I Won't

From the Unity HealthCare website
Just today, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released the results of a physician's survey that showed doctors believe patients' social needs to be as important as their physical ones. Nine out of ten physicians of low-income patients in particular, believe that procuring healthy food, safe housing and adequate transportation have a strong effect on good health. The survey notes, however, that most doctors and healthcare centers do not have the time or the funds to help support these social needs. Short staffed already, they often cannot provide the wrap-around services essential to good health.

Unity Healthcare, here in Washington, DC, sees these gaps and works to address them. Started in 1985 to address the health needs of homeless individuals and those in emergency shelters, Unity has grown to encompass 29 health care centers and a mobile van that serve uninsured and underserved populations of Washington, DC. Many of their clients are recent immigrants. Almost all of their patients would encounter difficulties receiving medical services without them.

Unity also happens to be the first organization I began my classes with just over a year ago. Several of their clinics received resources through the NIH program We Can!  This is a program that aims to give parents, caregivers and children the abilities and knowledge to combat obesity. At Unity, this translates into a once a week clinic where families come in, meet with a doctor to talk about their health and nutritional habits, listen to programming on good nutrition, participate in an exercise program (everything from yoga to Zumba! to belly dancing) and, this is where I come in, learn how to make easy, affordable and healthy family meals.

The participants in the classes I have taught are fabulous. They already love to cook and, for the most part, are willing to sample whatever we make. Clients regularly come in and report dishes and cooking changes they've made at home as well. As a bonus, they allow me to practice my Spanish (which is fairly terrible...the other night I might have mentioned cooking my grandmother by mistake) without ridicule. The cooking classes are approached more as a discussion than a "me telling them" sort of thing meaning that I have learned so much as well. (Including a lot of Spanish translations you won't find in any dictionary!) We discuss how each recipe could be changed and adapted to retain nutritional quality, but still meet budgetary needs and culinary tastes. Because the entire family is in the class, it is also extremely beneficial for parents to see that their children will indeed eat spinach or whole wheat pasta or squash without complaining.

In the future, we are hoping to expand the classes to help participants have more access to a greater variety of fresh, nutritious foods. The Unity We Can! Clinic hopes to partner with Wholesome Wave and work with our classes to utilize their Fruit and Veggie Rx program. Providing more of the ingredients for the dishes we sample that clients can take home with them is another goal. And no matter, the wonderful doctors and nurses at Unity will continue to support participants in making small, steady changes. (In actuality, I frequently have the doctors and nurses tell me they're going to try some of the recipes, too!)

Good health encompasses so many things. I love working with an organization like Unity that recognizes a pill or a surgery isn't always the answer and that patients sometimes need more than a physical to make lifestyle changes.

What are healthcare organizations in your area doing to promote more comprehensive good health amongst patients?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Giving o' the Food

People love it when you feed them. I mean, *I* love it (LOVE IT) when people invite me over for a home cooked meal (incidentally, this never happens...just saying). So this weekend, I threw my annual holiday party. I change from year to year, but this year's was an Open House Cocktail Party. I allowed my friends to bring their children. In retrospect, now that my friends are beginning to have multiple children, this might not have been wise. A 300 square foot living room, lots of glass and alcohol doesn't really scream "toddler". Still, we all survived, celebrated and had some delicious food to boot! Here are two of my favorite recipes from the evening, both well suited to winter and good health.

adapted from a Dec. 2011 Bon Appetit recipe

2 10-oz. packages shelled edamame, frozen (preferably organic)**
2 10-oz. packages peas, frozen **
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
2 tsp (or 2-3 cloves) garlic (adjust to preference)
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
3/4 cup (give or take) extra-virgin olive oil (you will add this slowly and taste as you go)
1/4 cup fresh cilantro
1/4 cup fresh mint

**You can also buy 1 16-oz bag of each (easier to find) and then adjust the other ingredients for taste/consistency. A lot of making hummus is going by feel anyways, so don't worry too much about exact amounts.

1. Cook frozen peas/edamame for 3-4 minutes in boiling water until tender. Drain and cool. (Can be done up to 3 days in advance.)
2. Place garlic, herbs, some edamame/peas and drizzle of olive oil/lemon juice in a food processor. Pulse until smooth and blended, adding spices as mixture becomes incorporated.
3. Pulse remaining edamame/peas in a food processor in batches. Drizzle olive oil, lemon juice while pulsing to aid in the process. Mix with original mixture in a bowl and adjust for consistency/taste with olive oil as needed.
4. Season with salt/pepper. Blend pulsed ingredients thoroughly with a spoon.
5. Keep in refrigerator for up to 4 or 5 days.

I like to serve with homemade pita chips. (Toast cut up pita bread drizzled with olive oil, salt and red pepper in the oven at 350 degrees until crispy. No need to flip.)

Adapted from a Dec. 2010 Cooking Light recipe
Makes around one dozen cookies

2 large egg whites
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
scant 1/4 teaspoon salt
scant 1/4 teaspoon cardamom
1 1/2 cups flaked coconut (I used unsweetened, but the original recipe uses sweetened...you can decide on the amount of sugar, but I think they still taste great with less)

1. Place egg whites in a bowl and lightly whisk. 
2. Add sugar, vanilla, salt, cardamom and whisk until frothy.
3. Add coconut and toss to combine.
4. Place in small tablespoon-sized mounds on a parchment lined baking pan (very important! Macaroon type cookies burn easily).
5. Bake at 325 degrees F for about 23 minutes.
6. Allow to cool and harden on the tray before removing.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Giving and Getting: Purchases Optional

Marion Street Garden: City Blossoms
Ah, December! Consumer heaven. People rush to shop online, in malls, at department stores, all to snatch up  items that quite possibly will be discarded by this time next year. Although I am a firm believer in the magic of holidays, I can't quite get behind presents given just for the sake of giving. Personally, I'd much prefer a lovely handwritten note, a batch of fresh muffins (whole wheat, naturally) and some homemade jam or a donation to a charitable organization then a hastily purchased gift. Hell, I'd even prefer someone *telling* me how much I mean to them then another bottle of wine or knickknack. No purchase required.

Produce purchases at City Blossoms come in a lovely hand-decorated bag
In that spirit, I am embarking on a personal journey this month to try and engage in meaningful giving each and every day. Some gifts will be monetary, some tangible. Others will require an investment of time or energy. All will be gifts of spirit. The goal is for me to think consciously about others, about why I'm giving, how I'm giving and the ways my gift can have an impact on one person or many. Each day, I'd like to bring some joy into someone's life.

A bit of this gift-giving will give me the chance to write about some of the fabulous organizations I've visited, worked with and learned about on my food journeys.  For the first day of my project, my recipient was City Blossoms. Here's a little bit about them.

City Blossoms is a non-profit in Washington, DC that operates eight gardens around the city and uses these gardens as a jumping-off point for lessons on nutrition, science, environment and community. Founded in 2003 by Rebecca Lemos and Lola Bloom (yes, that's her real last name), the program serves as an after-school "center" for many DC children as well as a resource for schools looking to bring more produce education into their curriculum. Rebecca and Lola work with kids (and anyone else in the community who wants to join in!) in the gardens weeding, planting, doing artwork, putting together baskets for their herb CSA shares, cooking and sampling the produce and running a small market. They also go into local DC schools and teach lessons on everything from evaporation to solidification to seed growth to culinary skills. Both the City Blossoms ladies have been generous in giving me ideas on working with preschoolers to middle schoolers! Their expertise cuts a wide swath.

At the Marion Street Garden, herbs grow like, well, weeds. Super delicious and nutritious weeds, that is.
City Blossoms works with the seasons and instills in the children and teens they work with the value of planning. Not only do they rotate each garden through seasonal changes, they also make sure to utilize all that the garden provides. Besides selling CSA shares (mostly of herbs), they sell affordable produce to the communities the gardens are located in, use it for delicious samples of nutritious food (of course!) and donate any surplus to local food banks. Lola and Rebecca also teach young participants how to create sellable products from remaining garden items. Soaps, sea salts and lotions made with their herbs are all sold as fundraising efforts for the program.

City Blossoms sea salts, soaps and lotion soap (my personal favorite)
Where does my "gift" come in? Yesterday, the generous FreshFarm Markets (check out my Zomppa piece on them and all the great work they do here) lent City Blossoms a spot in their Thursday farmer's market at Penn Quarter to sell some of their bath products. I stopped by and bought a few of each of their items (ok, I bought a TON of the lotion soap...it's pretty amazing). I can't wait to use it as gifts for friends and family. The money raised from these products will be used to support the gardens, but even better, it will be used to pay for a special celebration for the kids who have worked so hard all year long. Lola said they raised just shy of $200 total through their market sales, and the kids particularly loved being positioned at the market right next to the Dolcezza gelato samples. (Kids of all ages love Dolcezza. Just saying.) These young gardeners' seasonal celebration often involves dining at a nice restaurant (that utilizes fresh,seasonal produce, of course)- something many of them have never had the chance to do. Plus, they've learned valuable lessons about economics by marketing their products. These kids know how to SELL. Happily, they also know the nutrients in a tomato, how to grow a wickedly delicious cilantro and what a healthy, unprocessed meal looks like. And that's a gift worth giving to.

To learn more about City Blossoms, please visit here. To make a contribution to this organization, visit here.

How many 4th graders do you know that can identify "swiss chard"? Go get it, City Blossoms!