UC Food Blog
Even as Californians shelter in place to contain the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, nutritious food remains vital to the health and well-being of our communities.
“Eating fruits and vegetables is known to benefit our overall health and help our immune system,” said Lorrene Ritchie, director of the UC Nutrition Policy Institute. “At a time when we need to be especially vigilant about staying healthy, eating healthy is essential.”
Farms, farm stands and farmers markets are listed as “essential businesses” in the state shelter-in-place order because they are important parts of the food supply. Urban farms are included in this category. As large produce distributors struggle to switch from selling large quantities to restaurants, schools and institutions to supplying supermarkets, these small businesses may offer a better selection of fresh foods, and may be closer to homes and less crowded.
To help minimize exposure and risk of spreading of the virus, urban farms need to follow some key guidelines from the CDC , said Jennifer Sowerwine, UC Cooperative Extension metropolitan agriculture and food systems specialist in the Department of Environment, Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley.
UC Cooperative Extension has compiled a list of resources for farmers, community gardeners and other people working in the food system to ensure that they can continue supplying fresh, healthy and affordable food to Californians.
“Social distancing, heightened health and hygiene practices and cleaning and disinfecting reduce the risk,” said Sowerwine.
Although eating a nutritious diet can boost our immunity, the Los Angeles Times reported produce sales plummeted by 90% or more at Southern California produce markets after the statewide shelter-in-place rules went into effect.
“It's worrisome to see that sales of fruits and vegetables are dropping so sharply, but not surprising,” said Rachel Surls, UC Cooperative Extension sustainable food systems advisor for Los Angeles County. “As people shop during the crisis, they may be prioritizing groceries that can be stored for a longer time in the fridge or pantry. And they may be on a very limited food budget, even more so than usual, so they are likely prioritizing essentials like bread and rice and baby formula.”
To support farmers in California, the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program created a directory at http://www.calagtour.org for consumers to find local farms to purchase produce directly.
For families who have lost jobs and income, the risk of food insecurity increases. Some families could supplement their food from gardens and urban agriculture during this crisis.
Consumers must practice safety, too, when visiting farmers markets and farm stands. UC Cooperative Extension small farm advisor Ruth Dahlquist-Willard explained, "Things like keeping the minimum six-foot distance from customers, not touching any produce that you're not planning to buy, leaving as soon as you've made a purchase and washing the produce when you get home would be some good guidelines."
The virus is thought to be spread mainly from person to person, however there is evidence that COVID-19 can last for days on hard surfaces, thus the need to ramp up good health and hygiene practices, social distancing and cleaning and sanitizing of surfaces.
University of California research and extension faculty have compiled a list of helpful fact sheets and resources for farmers, community gardeners and other food system workers to ensure fresh, healthy and affordable food for communities across the state:
- Food-related resources for consumers and members of the food industry for COVID-19
- on the UC Davis Food Safety website.
- Sowerwine's PowerPoint presentation Safe Handling Practices for Fresh Produce in a Time of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) for urban farmers.
- A set of policies and procedures for safe food handling at the farm during COVID-19 provides step-by-step instructions for applying new food and health precautions on the farm including checklists, standard operating procedures and signage posting guidelines for preventing the spread of infection.
- COVID-19 safety guidelines for farm stands.
- Handouts for safe food-handling at home that can be distributed to customers receiving food from the farm.
All of these resources are posted on the UC Urban Agriculture website at https://ucanr.edu/sites/UrbanAg.
“During this challenging time, I am heartened by the quick and thoughtful responses by many extension, grassroots and institutional efforts, including Community Alliance with Family Farm's COVID-19 Responses and Resources for California Family Farms, Mutual Aid organizations where groups of young, healthy and lower-risk people are bringing food and services to vulnerable people who shouldn't be in public at all, and Bayareafood.info that seeks to support local restaurants, farmers, and food systems workers as they weather this latest storm,” said Sowerwine. “Crisis can spawn innovation, and I am hopeful that through this, we will come out the other end with a more compassionate and resilient food system.”
UC Cooperative Extension advisor Rose Hayden-Smith has taught schoolchildren at 4-H summer camps about food, inspired Master Gardener volunteers to plant school gardens, led the UC Cooperative Extension office in Ventura County as its first female director, and encouraged fellow University of California scientists to collaborate more on sustainable food systems research as a statewide leader. In recent years, the historian wrote a book about Victory Gardens, created the UC Food Observer, and became a leader in using social media to expand the university's public outreach.
Hayden-Smith, who joined UC Agriculture and Natural Resources in 1992, is reinventing herself again after retiring Jan. 3, 2020. She has been selected to be a Fellow for the eXtension Foundation, to promote adoption of new technology by Cooperative Extension professionals nationwide. She also launched her own consulting business, Shine Communications.
“I've loved the multi-faceted aspect of my UC career, which has enabled me to serve my community and my colleagues in creative and meaningful ways,” Hayden-Smith said.
Lynnette Coverly was a 4-H volunteer when Hayden-Smith joined UCCE Ventura County.
“Rose struck me immediately as a passionate and organized leader who easily motivated everyone she came in contact with,” Coverly said. “She motivated me personally to get more involved as a 4-H volunteer leader.
“For my daughter, Rose continually spoke with her about how to practically apply her education and the skills she learned in 4-H to her collegiate life and later, in dental school.”
“At Loma Vista Elementary School, Rose developed an experiential demonstration garden for the fourth-grade classes,” said Curwood, who is currently director of School Nutrition Programs at the Virginia Department of Education. “Crops introduced by the Spanish and native California crops used by the Indians, grown on the grounds of the California Missions to feed the complex, were grown by students in the school garden to replicate this important part of California history and culture.”
Hayden-Smith worked with Loma Vista Elementary School teachers annually to integrate the school garden with their California history curriculum and persuaded the kitchen staff to add the garden-grown foods to the cafeteria salad bars so the students could taste them.
“Rose also provided professional development to the school nutrition program foodservice staff on the agriculture present in Ventura during WWI and II and the contribution of local Victory Gardens to the war effort. It really brought history to life and amplified their work and community connections from a historical perspective.”
During a sabbatical leave, Hayden-Smith worked with deaf and hard-of-hearing students in garden settings. She teamed with the City of Ventura to pilot-test a curriculum for middle-school age youth about sustainability through fun garden activities.
A career day at the county science fair, agriculture and natural resource journalism academies, and on-farm programs for court-mandated kids were some other learning opportunities offered by Hayden-Smith, who served as a county commissioner for juvenile justice.
“Most recently, I've been working in digital communications in Extension, which has been a wonderful fit for my skills and evolving interests,” Hayden-Smith said. “This work has also brought me back to my early career work in marketing and technology.”
An early adopter of technology, Hayden-Smith began blogging and using Twitter in 2008 as @VictoryGrower, a handle chosen to reflect her expertise in the war-time Victory Garden movement.
“It's a different ‘victory' now, but many of the goals are the same,” Hayden-Smith said. “Gardens connect people with food and food production. Food is fundamental. It's what everyone shares in common. As we are entering a more challenging era of increased population and pressure on resources, it is vital for people to understand how to cultivate food.”
Over the years, the practicing historian has delivered many presentations, commented for documentaries and podcasts and published articles about gardens. She published a book, “Sowing the Seeds of Victory: American Gardening Programs of World War 1” in 2014.
While serving as a Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow, beginning in 2008, Hayden-Smith developed a national media and education campaign to promote school, home and community garden efforts and public policies, publishing articles in the Huffington Post and Civil Eats. She served on the USDA People's Garden Advisory Group, visiting the White House garden groundbreaking and again in 2012, when she live-tweeted her experience.
People increasingly took notice of the academic's extraordinary communication skills.
As the social media maven's following grew, she began mentoring and encouraging UC Cooperative Extension colleagues who wanted to use social media for outreach and professional networking.
In 2011, Hayden-Smith, who had developed a reputation for being upbeat with a knack for cultivating cooperation, was tapped to lead UC ANR's strategic initiative in sustainable food systems. She was honored for her leadership, work ethic and integrity in 2013, when the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis presented her with the Eric Bradford and Charlie Rominger Agricultural Sustainability Leadership Award.
To support UC's Global Food Initiative, Hayden-Smith was asked to curate a selection of news, reports and thought pieces from a broad range of sources that represent diverse perspectives on food. The intent was not to focus on UC, but to facilitate discussions about food that were occurring across many communication platforms. She launched the UC Food Observer blog in 2015 and complemented it with social media.
“Over the course of my UC career, I've worked with the best people: curious, driven to improve communities and inspiring all around,” Hayden-Smith said. “I've been blessed to work for a world-class institution that has fostered my creativity and need for new challenges. My biggest takeaway? It all goes so fast, the possibilities for learning new things are endless, and work – and the people you work with – are a blessing.”
Prior to working for UC, Hayden-Smith worked in the technology sector as a product manager, and public relations and marketing manager for a number of companies, including Tymshare, Wavefront Technologies and McDonnell Douglas Information System Group. She earned her bachelor's degree in English, master's degrees in education and US. history, and a Ph.D. in U.S. history and public historical studies. She began her UC career in 1989 as a student affairs officer at UCSB advising re-entry students.
“Transitions are hard, and I'm filled with both sadness and excitement,” Hayden-Smith said.
This is the third in a series featuring a few scientists whose work exemplifies UC ANR's public value for California.
Keeping current on government regulations, agricultural marketing news and crop research advances can be challenging for California farmers, especially for those who speak English as a second language.
Hmong farmers in the San Joaquin Valley can tune in at 2 p.m. on Tuesday afternoons to listen to farm-related news delivered to their radios in their native language from Michael Yang, UC Cooperative Extension small farms and specialty crops agricultural assistant for Fresno County.
For the past 22 years, Yang has hosted the one-hour Hmong Agriculture Radio Show on KBIF 900 AM in Fresno to promote prosperity in the largely immigrant, small-scale Southeast Asian farming community. Yang provides advice on crop production and marketing.
“Fresno County has a large number of small and diversified farms; we have over 1,300 Southeast Asian farms and over 900 are Hmong farmers, according to a survey we did in 2007,” Yang said. “I used to help 250 to 300 farmers every year, in the past couple of years it's grown to about 400 farmers.”
Yang not only speaks their language, he shares their culture and history. After his father was killed for assisting the U.S. during the Vietnam War, Yang, his mother and three younger brothers spent 4 years of his childhood fleeing on foot through the jungles of Laos, subsisting on vegetation and wildlife, to reach safety in Thailand. The refugee family eventually made it to Fresno, where they took up farming.
The Hmong farmers grow Asian specialty crops including eggplant, lemongrass, long bean, squashes, bittermelon and moringa that they sell at farmers markets or to restaurants. Connecting Southeast Asian farmers to sell their produce at farmers markets has been a vital role for Yang, who serves as a translator and cultural interpreter between the immigrant farmers and farmers market managers. He explains the requirements for participating in the farmers markets and helps the farmers with paperwork and communication. Some growers drive as far as San Diego to get a higher price for their produce; the price can be three times as high at farmers markets in larger cities compared to Fresno.
Sales of Asian specialty crops grown by Hmong and other Southeast Asian farmers in Fresno County are valued at about $17.5 million annually, according to the Agricultural Commissioner of Fresno County.
Although Yang and colleague Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, UC Cooperative Extension small farms advisor, offer workshops and field days to share information, the radio show is an important information source because farmers can listen to the show while they work in the field. Because Hmong Agriculture Radio Show is such a critical tool for bilingual outreach, Dahlquist-Willard continually seeks grants to pay the $75 per show to the radio station. Of the 69 Hmong farmers who responded to a 2015 UC Cooperative Extension survey, 80% said they regularly listened to Yang's radio show.
“With the help of our Hmong Agricultural radio outreach, I have Hmong farmers calling our office for assistance from Tulare County up to Stanislaus County,” Yang said.
In 2015, during the drought, Yang and Dahlquist-Willard began helping desperate farmers who were running out of irrigation water.
“Wells were starting to dry up. Some Hmong farmers were reportedly calling suicide hotlines,” Dahlquist-Willard recalled. “For the ones with dry wells, it could cost $20,000 to $50,000 to drill a new well.” That is money that most of the farmers, who typically cultivate less than 50 acres, didn't have.
Eighty-seven percent of the Hmong farmers said their utility bills had risen during the drought. Yang, Dahlquist-Willard and Xai Chang, a young Hmong farmer working with UCCE, helped the farmers get a free PG&E rate analysis, which could help the farmers choose the best electric rate for their irrigation practices to lower the expense. The UCCE team also searched for financing to deepen wells for farmers who had difficulty qualifying for USDA loans and helped them apply for grants from the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program. With additional help from small farms assistant Jacob Roberson, the UCCE small farms team in Fresno has assisted 36 small-scale Hmong, Latino, and African-American farmers to implement SWEEP projects on a total of 846 acres. The small-scale growers have used SWEEP dollars to invest in technologies like energy efficient pumps, drip irrigation systems and flow meters to save water and reduce their energy costs.
“Michael helped me get a grant to buy a new pump for drip irrigation,” said Xiong Pao Her, who grows about 100 crops throughout the year – including ginger, broccoli rabe, fennel, garlic, green onions, napa cabbage and kale – in Sanger. “It saves me water.”
Obtaining land to farm can be difficult for small-scale farmers so the UCCE agricultural assistant connects farmers looking to rent land with landowners, and serves as a bridge for the language and cultural gaps between the two, according to Dahlquist-Willard.
“There was an elderly couple and their daughter wanting to rent land to a Hmong family, and Michael sat down at the table with all the parties and helped them work out a lease agreement, such as requirements for liability insurance,” she said. “Land isn't as available to rent as it used to be, but when it was, Michael would get frequent calls from landowners asking if he knew any farmers who would be interested in renting their land. The number of Southeast Asian farmers who have had a successful lease agreement or a successful farmers market stand because of Michael's help is probably very large.”
Recently Yang and Dahlquist-Willard partnered with California State University Fresno to produce a pesticide-safety video series for the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. “We hope the videos help more farmers understand pesticide regulations and avoid fines, as well as improve their safe handling, selection and effectiveness,” said Yang.
It's not the first time Yang, who has been working for UC Cooperative Extension since 1993, has helped farmers navigate government regulations. Between 2005 and 2008, individual Hmong and Hispanic farmers were being fined between $14,000 and $26,000 for noncompliance with state labor regulations. To provide farmers with a clear understanding of the labor laws, Yang and Richard Molinar, then UCCE small farm advisor, partnered with a variety of community organizations to present information to farmers in English, Spanish, Lao and Hmong at community meetings, on the radio and television, and in trade magazines and newspapers.
“Without the support provided by the UCCE, hundreds, if not thousands, of Hmong farmers would have been added to the victim list for not knowing or understanding the laws. The UCCE has gone many extra miles to fill gaps between enforcement agencies and the Hmong farming community,” Toulu Thao, a Hmong activist, said at the time.
To help farmers decide which crops are most profitable to plant, Yang collaborated in the past with UC colleagues to estimate production costs for some Asian vegetables including sinqua, moqua, opo, longbean, bittermelon, oriental eggplant and lemongrass.
Yang currently advises Hmong growers on about 200 crops and continues to learn about new ones as farmers market customers ask the growers to produce fruits and vegetables from other cultures.
“I didn't know I would get so much soil today, now I can grow more cucumbers in my room!” said Miss Anita as she placed fresh soil into her plant pottery on Community Planting Day. The Estabrook Place resident was a first-time participant of a new gardening program for older adults hosted by the University of California Cooperative Extension in Alameda County.
The UC Cooperative Extension senior gardening program integrates healthy eating, active living and gardening education. Miss Anita was one of 200 seniors who participated in the gardening and nutrition education program led by Katherine Uhde, a CalFresh Healthy Living, UC community education specialist, in collaboration with the UC Master Gardener Program of Alameda County.
According to the National Institute of Aging, older adults experience high levels of social isolation and loneliness, which lead to an increased risk of chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, depression and obesity. Educational activities that promote a healthy lifestyle and encourage interaction with peers are recommended to prevent these conditions in aging adults.
“We need to be able to address the needs of our greying generation and focus on prevention rather than treatment,” explained Mary Blackburn, UC Cooperative Extension nutrition, family, and consumer sciences advisor, about the benefits of group-based wellness activities for seniors.
The senior gardening program was developed by Blackburn and tested at Palo Vista Gardens Community, an Oakland Housing Authority-managed senior property. It is part of a larger quality of life study on the health of aging adults being conducted at seven Eden Housing sites with CalFresh Healthy Living, UC, which serves diverse populations of people who are eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as CalFresh food. Through nutrition education and physical activity classes, CalFresh Healthy Living, UC empowers seniors and other underserved Californians to improve their health.
This is the first project that CalFresh Healthy Living, UC partnered on with Eden Housing, a nonprofit provider of affordable housing in Alameda County. Through the collaboration, Eden Housing residents are able learn about nutrition, food safety and gardening concurrently at their living facilities. Residents learned how to grow fresh herbs, including marjoram and basil, while learning the benefits of cooking with them.
In past research, Blackburn found unsafe food handling practices used by over half of the fixed-income seniors and food handlers and caregivers serving seniors surveyed in 10 counties. At the Alameda County location, a UC Master Food Preserver volunteer, trained in Solano County, offers safe food handling classes.
Because the residents speak various languages including Cantonese, Vietnamese, Spanish, and Korean, CalFresh Healthy Living, UC has partnered with the Volunteer Health Interpreters Organization to connect certified, student volunteer translators to assist the participants. This partnership allows UCCE educators to communicate with participants in their native language and allows residents to more easily interact with their neighbors and develop friendships.
To paraphrase the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child,” it takes a community to meet the needs of people with various physical and mental abilities, cultural backgrounds and life experiences.
On Community Planting Day, every senior resident is smiling as they dig their hands into the dirt to make room for a seed or seedling. Residents who were strangers before the event are exchanging ideas of what they would like to grow, and like Miss Anita, are enthused to grow more vegetables.
To assess the benefits of the gardening program for seniors, Blackburn is working with Lisa Soederberg Miller, director of the Adult Development Lab and professor in the Department of Human Ecology at UC Davis. They hope to share what they learn with others who wish to establish a similar program for seniors in their community.
The University of California is providing a free online course, Healthy Beverages in Early Care & Education, in English and Spanish for child care providers in California. The 30-minute on-demand class is a friendly way to learn about the latest recommendations for healthy beverages for children and help child care providers meet the California Healthy Beverages in Child Care Act (AB 2084) requirements.
- Milk - whenever milk is served, serve only lowfat (1%) milk or nonfat milk to children two years of age or older.
- Juice - limit juice to not more than one serving per day of 100% juice.
- Sweetened Beverages - serve no beverages with added sweeteners, either natural or artificial. Beverages with added sweeteners does not include infant formula or complete balanced nutritional products designed for children.
- Drinking Water - make clean and safe drinking water readily available and accessible for consumption throughout the day.
The training includes videos, short quizzes and activities, and covers topics such as milk, types of fruit juice, drinking water and reading a nutrition label. A professional development certificate will be provided upon completion of the class.
To sign up for the class, visit http://bit.ly/NPIccbevE for English and http://bit.ly/NPIccbevS for Spanish and create an account. Providers outside of California may have similar beverage requirements. And all young children, regardless of licensing or Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) requirements, can benefit from consuming healthy beverages. The course is free for California providers and available for child care providers outside of California for a $15 fee.
This class was developed by the UCSF School of Nursing, California Childcare Health Program in partnership with the University of California Nutrition Policy Institute and Cooperative Extension, with support from a grant by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources.