Tulelake Farm Advisor
University of California
Tulelake Farm Advisor

UC Food Blog

Supporting farmers markets in the time of COVID-19

When California issued a statewide stay-at-home order to slow the spread of COVID-19 earlier this spring, a handful of essential services were exempted from the order. Along with grocery stores and agricultural operations, farmers markets were included as essential sources of food. For the farmers and other vendors who sell at farmers markets, their businesses and sometimes their livelihoods depend on the markets. For many people, farmers markets are important social occasions, as we all like to gather around good food to talk, share, and eat together. But the primary role farmers markets fill as sources of nutrient-dense, high-quality, fresh fruits and vegetables has become increasingly clear as bare produce shelves in stores have become an unfortunately common sight.
Farmers markets are essential community food sources and important for promoting social connection, which are especially needed now in small towns and counties.
As the nutrition, family and consumer sciences advisor for UC Cooperative Extension in the Central Sierra, my primary mission is to help connect foothill residents with healthy food, especially fruits and vegetables. One of the best ways to do that is to support farmers markets. I know that our foothill growers want to feed the people in their communities, and I know that many people want to eat locally and support local businesses. Especially now that the COVID-19 crisis has caused cracks in the national structures we use to distribute food, farmers markets' role as essential sources of healthy food has only increased.
In addition to being essential community food sources, farmers markets are important for promoting social connection, which is especially needed now in our small towns and counties. The risk of social isolation and disconnection is always present in rural areas, but it is especially pronounced in this time of social distancing. While it's essential to maintain physical distance to slow the spread of COVID-19, it is also critically important to maintain our relationships and sense of belonging in our communities. Purchasing locally grown food from a familiar producer, having the opportunity to ask questions and discuss the food in a physically distanced way, and knowing that each purchase supports the livelihood of people in our community are all important benefits of farmers markets in the time of COVID-19.
However, to some of us sheltering in place the thought of attending a typical farmers market right now is frightening. It's hard to imagine how physical distancing could be accomplished at a typical bustling market. Luckily for those of us in the Central Sierra foothills, we have the opportunity to learn from other year-round farmers markets across the state that have been operating throughout the COVID-19 crisis. While each market is unique, market managers and supporters have been working hard to test new approaches to crowd control, vendor layout, handwashing stations, and other strategies designed to keep vendors and the public safe.
Farmers markets are testing new approaches to keep vendors and customers safe at farmers markets. (Photo: Pamela Kan-Rice)
Many of these markets have successfully created shopping environments that respect physical distancing and the most current safety information, which indicates that COVID-19 is thought to spread primarily from person-to-person contact. While the FDA has no current evidence of cases acquired through contact with food or food packaging, evidence that the virus can survive on surfaces means that increased sanitation practices and caution around food handling are warranted. Read more in this COVID-19 and Food Safety FAQ (in Spanish) and this informational handout on Shopping and Handling Groceries, including fresh produce. Information on many more topics related to food safety and COVID-19 are available on the UC Food Safety web page.
Thanks to our Central Sierra market associations and market managers around the state for being proactive about planning market environments that connect people with the nutritious food they need while working to provide the safest possible market experience. While farmers markets may look a little different this season than they have in the past, I hope they remain the essential sources of healthy food they have always been.
Posted on Tuesday, May 12, 2020 at 9:19 AM
Focus Area Tags: Food Health

Home schooling during the stay at home order: Kids in the kitchen

Graphic: https://ucanr.edu/sites/SLO/files/325429.pdf

Most people are home a lot more right now. That can mean more time spent on meal preparation for ourselves and our families. Luckily, cooking at home is a great way to save money and eat healthier. If you are feeling pressed for time, ask your kids for help in the kitchen or planning meals and grocery lists. Kids who are involved in cooking meals have been shown to have healthier diets and eat a greater variety of foods.

Is this their first time in the kitchen?

Make it fun and start with safety. Food safety is the first and most important cooking skill you can teach your kids. Show them how to wash their hands for 20 seconds. By now, many people know that singing Happy Birthday twice is about 20 seconds, but if you don't like that song or your kids are older, there are a lot of other 20-second songs or your kids can create their own at Wash Your Lyrics.

Graphic: California Department of Public Health

Remind children to wash the back of their hands, under their fingernails and above their wrists. Also, wearing an apron if you have one can be fun and food safe. Aprons help keep the germs and dirt from clothes out of your food, especially important if kids are changing their clothes less now that schools are not in session. Be sure to clean and sanitize any cooking surfaces before you begin food preparation.

What if your child is not interested in cooking?

Ask them what they want to eat or cook. Give them boundaries for selecting recipes that meet your needs, for example: they have to use ingredients that you already have at home, or it has to include at least three of the five MyPlate food groups. Giving youth decision-making power is a great way to ensure they are invested and engaged. Start with lunch or snack preparation then move onto dinner once they've got the basics down. Need some ideas? MyPlate snack tips for kids

Graphic: ChooseMyPlate.gov

Kids still not interested?

Some young people might become more interested if cooking involves learning about their family history or cultural foods. Share your food traditions and family recipes with them.

Kids can cook! How to manage your stress so cooking can be fun for everyone

Letting young ones crack an egg or mix batter can be hard to watch and messy, but it can be very empowering for a child. If you're anxious about letting them cook, they will be too and that can take some of the fun out of cooking for both of you. The first step could be acknowledging everything you're feeling about inviting a child into your kitchen. Are you worried that dinner won't be finished in time? Are you nervous about the mess that you will have to clean up? Are you concerned that they will hurt themselves or break something? Find out what is causing you to feel uneasy and acknowledge it. Once you know what you are feeling stressed or anxious about, then you can find a way to manage it.

5 things you can do to create a lower stress environment in the kitchen

  1. Put a towel down on the counter to make clean-up easier and bowls less prone to sliding around.

  2. Use a smaller bowl for the child to mix or measure ingredients in before it is poured into the larger recipe bowl.

  3. Consider creating a cook space outside.

  4. Take it one step at a time, wait to introduce cooking on the stove until they are older and you are confident in their skills and safety awareness.

  5. Start simple, with lower-stress meals like snacks or lunch – you can move onto dinner when you are ready.
Photo: USDA FNS Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

A little time invested now, will pay off in the future

Getting kids involved in the kitchen and teaching them new skills takes time and effort. Make sure that effort pays off. Ask them to practice and perfect their skills frequently so they can help and become responsible family members. Consider adding cooking to their weekly chores. Important tasks that anyone can do to help in the kitchen include scrubbing vegetables, tearing lettuce into pieces, cleaning counters and dishes, making a grocery list, creating a meal plan, etc.  

Culinary skills to start with

  • Washing and picking cilantro, parsley, basil or other leafy greens. Show them the difference between the leaf and the stem. Give them a bowl or measuring cup and show them how much you need. Ask them to fill the cup/bowl.

  • Stirring and mixing. Kids like to do things themselves and be in charge. Show them how to mix and give them a tool that fits in their hand – a fork makes a great sifter/mixer and there is less of an opportunity for ingredients to be scooped and flung.

  • Cutting soft foods with a plastic or butter knife on a cutting board. If possible, make a flat surface on the food so that it doesn't roll around while they are trying to cut. For example, cut several strawberries in half. Lay the flat side down and have them slice the strawberries and remove the green stem. Show them how to hold the knife with the blade moving down and away from the body. Want more instruction? Video on basic knife skills

  • Pushing buttons on the oven, microwave or food processor. Can they find the number 2? Can they preheat the oven to 350 degrees?

  • Cracking eggs into a small bowl so that it is easy to get the shells out when they don't crack the egg perfectly the first or second or third time. Were you taught how to crack an egg? Teaching others how to cook is a great way to enhance your own skills.
Photo: USDA Food and Nutrition Service

Older kids and youth

  • As they get older they will want even more independence and decision-making power. Let them call the shots – with guidelines. For example, let them plan a meal but tell them they need to include at least three food groups from MyPlate. This way you don't end up with fried chicken for dinner and no sides. Offer to be their assistant so you can guide and supervise.

  • Show them how to read a recipe and increase their vocabulary with words like dice, chop, simmer, etc.

Need more ideas of age-appropriate cooking activities for kids? See the Cooking with Kids infographic for recipes, and links to more sources. The possibilities are endless.


Posted on Monday, May 11, 2020 at 9:30 AM
Focus Area Tags: Family Food Health

Why are farmers destroying crops while store shelves are empty?

Many perishable produce items, such as romaine, are planted, harvested, packed and shipped according to a precise schedule so it's difficult to quickly adjust the amount of supply.

Empty grocery store shelves are troubling enough to California consumers who are accustomed to abundant supplies. To hear about farmers dumping milk, crushing eggs and plowing under crops when demand for food is strong just doesn't make sense to most consumers. Although the new coronavirus crisis has currently derailed the connection between supply and demand, “the food system in the United States is resilient and there is little reason for alarm about food availability,” write University of California agricultural economists.

Overall, neither food consumption nor the amount of food supplied by farms have changed much, they write in a new article published by UC's Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics. The authors explain that the sudden closure of schools, restaurants and other institutions, coupled with residents in many states sheltering in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19, has disrupted normal patterns of where people buy food.

“Price changes, surpluses and shortages along the food supply chain are likely the result of recent and temporary shocks to supply, demand or both,” said co-author Ellen Bruno, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Berkeley.

While packing plants retool to pack salad for retail instead of bulk for restaurants and institutions, some fresh produce was plowed under.

“On the demand side, we have seen customers shift to buying more food at the grocery store as restaurants and other food service businesses have closed. Plus, consumers have changed what they consume and stockpile during these times,” she said.

Initially, worried consumers stocked up on staples such as rice and pasta that store well. Then, with more free time, they started cooking at home and baking their own bread and pastries, buying up eggs, flour, sugar and other baking supplies.

“On the supply side, there are challenges in trying to rearrange production and packaging to service grocery stores, as opposed to restaurants, schools, etc. which often purchase items in different quantities,” Bruno said. “Plus, there are the obvious health concerns and potential disruptions due to the impact of the virus on the workers themselves.” 

As restaurants closed and Californians began sheltering in place, consumers began buying more food at the grocery store to eat at home.

How quickly the food supply system will adapt to changing demand depends on the product, according to Bruno and her co-authors Richard J. Sexton, UC Davis professor, and Daniel A. Sumner, director of the UC Agricultural Issues Center and UC Davis professor, both in the Department of Agricultural & Resource Economics. Canned fruits and vegetables are often processed shortly after harvest and can be moved from storage to retail fairly quickly. To increase egg production, farmers have to add to the number of laying hens, which takes months. Many perishable produce items are planted, harvested, packed and shipped according to a precise schedule to replenish grocery store inventories “just in time” so farmers can't quickly increase the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables they supply.

Produce wholesalers who sell to food service have products and packaging specifically designed for that market. For example, packing plants that prepare large bulk salad packages for restaurants aren't set up to pack salad into retail-ready bags that require consumer labels. While adjustments were made, some fresh produce rotted or was plowed under.

A milk plant that packages milk in small cartons for schools will face challenges to quickly redesign its operations to supply gallon and half-gallon jugs for retail stores while schools are closed.

After the COVID-19 disruption ends, the authors expect the food supply chain to evolve as the economy gradually recovers.

“In the longer term, even after restaurants and the food service industry are back and running, reduced incomes due to the recession will change our consumption patterns,” Bruno said. “Demand for food consumed at home doesn't change much with income, but demand for food at restaurants does. In many ways, food service and the growers that supply directly to food service will be hardest hit by all of this because they suffer both in the short run with mandatory closures and in the long run with an economic recession.”

Although it's uncertain how long the pandemic will last, the authors say Americans will have an adequate supply of safe, healthy food. 

“Despite these disruptions, overall our food supply chain is robust and adaptable,” Bruno said. “Nothing in the underlying economics suggests that there will be a lack of food available.”

To read “The Coronavirus and the Food Supply Chain,” visit https://bit.ly/covidimpactonfood.

Posted on Wednesday, April 22, 2020 at 1:58 PM
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture

Creating family home cooking memories with love and gratitude

Growing up in a traditional Asian Indian household, home cooking was a part of the daily routine and a cultural practice. At the time, acquiring cooking knowledge and skills was an expectation and considered normal. When I moved to the United States, I added new knowledge about diverse cultural values and norms surrounding food and home cooking practices.

Today, with millions of people nationwide facing stay-at-home and social distancing guidelines, home cooking has found new meaning for many families. Navigating through this new normal, I feel blessed to have the cooking knowledge and skills that empower me to cook basic pantry food items into diverse cultural food recipes from across the world. Thanks to my family for keeping the passion of home cooking alive.

As the UC Cooperative Extension nutrition, family, and consumer sciences advisor and a researcher trying to understand and identify strategies to support healthy lifestyle habits among children and families, I feel this commitment has never been stronger than it is right now. I decided to meaningfully inform the ways families can work together with children in the kitchen. In this process, I examined the strategies used by UCCE nutrition education programs of Tulare and Kings counties in the past year, along with current research and best practices that promote home cooking, age-appropriate kitchen tasks, and meal preparation activities.

Families that prepare meals at home eat a healthier diet.

What is cooking and why it matters?

Cooking is a learned skill that is broadly defined as the ability and capacity to prepare meals. Cooking at home is a practice that encompasses a range of activities to include nutrition and age-appropriate kitchen tasks from food planning, preparation, safety, consumption and much more. Children can acquire cooking skills at home with adult guidance and supervision. There are many benefits of cooking at home.

Cooking at home improves health and well-being  

Families that prepare meals at home eat a healthier diet. Studies have reported more fruit and vegetable consumption and low consumption of convenience and processed foods among families who cook at home compared to families who cook irregularly or not at all. A study reported that adolescents with cooking ability indicated better nutritional and mental health and stronger family connections. Among adults, cooking at home has indicated improvements in health status, dietary intake, self-efficacy, self-esteem, mood and affect.

Cooking at home strengthens family resource management

Food resource management involves meal planning, shopping, and budgeting. Studies have shown preparing meals at home saves time and money and helps families eat healthy on a budget.

Cooking at home increases family mealtimes  

Having basic cooking skills set the foundation for family mealtimes. Research shows when families cook at home, they are more likely to eat at home most days of the week, make healthier food choices, and save money.

Cooking at home promotes family cultural tradition

Families pass on their cultural tradition when they include children in every aspect of the meal preparation, from choosing the food menu and ingredients, to setting the table to making the meal, talking and eating together. Research shows such practices may differ from family to family, however, it creates lifelong knowledge and memories.

Cooking at home contributes to lifelong healthy habits and life skills

Cooking together as a family helps children learn useful life skills of reading, teamwork, planning and organization, communication, problem-solving, creativity, imagination, cleanliness, and gratitude. Children can apply math, science, nutrition, culinary, and geography lessons to understand where the food comes from, how to read a recipe, how to measure ingredients, healthy vs. unhealthy foods, foods from around the world, seasonal foods, nutrition aspects of the food and much more.    

Promoting healthy families and communities through UC Cooperative Extension

The University of California Cooperative Extension administers CalFresh Healthy Living, UC and the Expanded Food & Nutrition Education Program in Tulare and Kings counties

Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nutrition education is an integral component of these programs. Increasingly in recent years, there is a focus on improving lifelong practical skills using age-appropriate learning approaches.

In the past year, the UCCE nutrition programs in Tulare and Kings counties have empowered children, youth, adults, and families with knowledge and skills to make the healthy choice the easy choice.

Participants learned about handwashing and food safety, age-appropriate cooking basics, growing a vegetable garden, reading a recipe, eating healthy from five food groups, healthy and seasonal foods. Through food demonstrations and taste tests, participants enjoyed foods from all food groups, including new fruits and vegetables, and showed a willingness to try them at home.

Additionally, adult learning also included food planning and management, selection, preparation, cooking, and eating on a budget.

How can families engage children in age-appropriate home cooking activities?

Now is the time to create family home cooking memories with love and gratitude

Try a few of the activities listed below, and set goals to adopt small healthy living changes. Soon, you'll be proud and happy to see your children pick up these skills and habits.

Age-appropriate kitchen tasks. Children are great helpers. Parents can delegate and guide children with Age-Appropriate Kitchen Tasks . Age-appropriate tasks are recommended based on what children can do at each age. Effective parental practices can help children stay healthy and safe (Child Development Milestones & Parenting).

Cooking appliances, tools and accessories.Be a kitchen tour guide to your children and help them get to know the kitchen layout and appliances. Show them cooking tools and accessories that you frequently use in the kitchen. Provide age-appropriate cooking tools to encourage children to get involved in the kitchen.

Help children understand the importance of washing hands before, during, and after handling food, cooking, and eating. Help children develop handwashing habits by following Five Steps to Handwashing. Handwashing can be a fun family activity

Food safety. Explain to children the science behind food handling, cooking, and storage using guidelines about Food Safety in Your Kitchen and Food Safety Fun Learning Family Activities. To get guidance on safe handling, preparation, and storage of food and beverage items, download Foodkeeper App.

Food menu planning. Involve children in Food Planning Activities & Resources. Create a  Sample Two-Week Menuto minimize trips to grocery stores. Ask children to help you create a family food menu. During grocery shopping, fill your cart with healthy options and consider shelf-stable and budget-friendly items from each food group with Food Groups Tip for Every Aisle.

Cooking with new foods, herbs and spices.Walk the talk about the importance of eating from five food groups and drinking water instead of sugar-sweetened beverages by doing so yourself. When creating a food menu and food recipes, include foods from five food groups - fruits, vegetables, proteins, grains and dairy from MyPlate and Seasonal Produce Guide. Add flavor to your food with Herbs & Spices. You can also Grow Your Own Herbs & Spices Indoors .

Food recipe cookbooks. Involve children in creating healthy food recipe cookbooks for breakfast, snacks, lunch, appetizers, and dinner. Think about building traditional family food recipes, food recipes from around the world or by culture, quick and easy food recipes, cooking with herbs, slow-cooker recipes, and much more. Family friendly recipe ideas can be found at MyPlate KitchenHealthy Recipes from the Whitehouse to You, Meeting Your MyPlate Goals On A Budget, Healthy Eating on a Budget Cookbook.

Snack time creativity.

Food demonstration and taste test.
Food demonstration and taste test can be a fun family kitchen activity during weekends. Encourage children to create a fun recipe to cook, and ask them to use their five senses to describe the flavors, ingredients and the food used in the recipe. Try to blend the food from many cultures to create new recipes. Share family food stories with children to keep the family tradition alive.

Family mealtimes. Family mealtime is an opportunity to eat, talk, connect, communicate, and learn. Visit MyPlatePlan to learn what and how much to eat within calorie allowance. Eating together as a family gives the children an opportunity to learn and practice their table manners, social and communication skills.

Reduce food waste. Family meal preparation time is a great opportunity to educate children about how to Recycle & Compost food waste. Recycling food helps save money and reduces the amount of food going to waste.

Food- and kitchen-related COVID-19 informational resources.The USDA Food and Nutrition Service and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has useful nutrition and food safety tips and activities for families managing the challenging conditions of the COVID-19 outbreak. Find these organizations here:

Posted on Tuesday, April 21, 2020 at 8:33 AM
Tags: cook with kids (2), EFNEP (9), UC CalFresh (20)
Focus Area Tags: Food

Roadside strawberry stands offer particularly flavorful fruit

Central Valley residents from Visalia to Sacramento look forward every year to the beginning of strawberry season in early April, when roadside strawberry stands operated by Hmong and Mien farmers open to the public.

These farms grow strawberry varieties such as Chandler and Camarosa that haven't traded flavor for shelf life – they don't ship or store well, but they are far sweeter than varieties usually sold in stores, and they reach their peak ripeness and flavor in the fields next to the strawberry stands.

Strawberries sold at farm stands are typically sweeter and more flavorful than varieties sold in stores.

As strawberry season opens this year, farmers are hoping that customers will still stop by the stands to pick up their fresh, seasonal strawberries, and also that they will observe 6-foot social distancing and other guidelines to reduce the spread of COVID-19. UC Cooperative Extension agricultural assistant Michael Yang and I were interviewed on a local news station to encourage Fresno residents to practice these guidelines while supporting local farmers.

To assist Fresno strawberry farmers, the UCCE small farms team in Fresno County developed, printed, and distributed signs for roadside strawberry stands reminding customers to observe social distancing and other safety practices, as well as guidelines for farm stands to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Versions of the signs were also developed for strawberry stands in Merced and Sacramento, as well as a general sign for local produce at any farm stand.

Signs and safety guidelines were printed with funding from the Western Extension Risk Management Education Center, and Michael Yang distributed large printed versions of the signs to all strawberry stands on the Fresno County Fruit Trail map in Fresno County. These materials have also been shared with UCCE small farms and food systems advisors as well as nonprofit and agency partners and county Agricultural Commissioner's offices, and they are available for printing on the UCCE Fresno strawberry website.

UC Cooperative Extension distributed signs to roadside strawberry stands with guidelines for safe shopping during the COVID-19 crisis.
Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, Ph.D., is the UC Cooperative Extension advisor to small-scale farmers in Fresno and Tulare counties.
Posted on Monday, April 20, 2020 at 9:07 AM
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture Food

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