Open thread: Starting a composting program

Photo: Wikipedia

After reading Composting is a Redemptive Act by Ed Bruske, I really would like to start composting at home in 2012. I don’t know where to start –and I can’t even imagine how one would start large scale composting in a school cafeteria. I know it can be done and I should ask my friend Sarah Elizabeth Ippel, founder of the Academy for Global Citizenship about composting as they are a zero waste school in my district.

What do you know about composting? How do you start? What materials are necessary? How would you start on a large scale?

Guest blog: In defense of the childhood treat

Liz Snyder is a food activist, farm-starter, and Mom. She has a Masters’ in nutritional anthropology from Oxford University. In 2007, she co-founded Full Circle Farm in Sunnyvale, CA and more recently, helped start a CSA program for 150 low-income families with FIRST 5 Santa Clara County.

Right now, Liz is working on starting Little Bee Pops, a small sustainable food business in Mountain View, CA. Using fresh produce and honey – all sourced from within 150 miles – the handmade, healthy popsicles will be sold at local parks and farmers’ markets.

She is currently crowdfunding her new venture via Kickstarter. You can learn more about Little Bee Pops by clicking here: http://www.littlebeepops.com

It can be painful sometimes, being that “mean mom.” The one saying “no” to the snack foods aisle of the grocery store, the ice cream cart at the park, or the snack bar at the pool.

If you’re a parent reading this blog, you can probably relate. Because unfortunately, the way we feed our kids at school is just the tip of the iceberg. It seems to me that, in every corner of the world inhabited by kids, there is a company or institution pedaling junk food laden with corn- and soy-based chemical byproducts. I don’t blame my daughter for wanting it all – her brain is wired to seek extra sugar, fat, and calories. But by consistently and vehemently saying no, I am always worried that I am turning junk food into forbidden fruit, something to be coveted and snuck and eaten in secrecy. As a nutritional anthropologist who’s studied the deep connections between food choices and emotions, I realize this is the exact opposite of what I want for my child.

Back in 2007, I set out on a mission to change one school district’s food supply – and to change a neighborhood’s relationship with food. Together with a small group of committed community activists, I co-founded Full Circle Farm, an 11-acre organic, educational farm on school district land. The idea was to grow fruits and vegetables to supply both the neighborhood and the school cafeterias with fresh, organic, affordable produce.

At the time, my daughter was only a preschooler – but that farm became her playground, her school, and her grocery store. It was not unusual to find her traipsing through the fields gnawing on a tomato the size of her head, or in the educational garden, grazing row after row of tender DeCiccio broccoli shoots. Her natural instinct to seek food, to graze, and to go after the sweetest stuff she could find was completely healthy in this context. I never said no to sun-ripened strawberries, tender pea shoots, or purple string beans she liked to snag straight from the plant.

When I left the farm in 2010, it was a tough transition for our whole family. But I think Helen especially struggled with the lack of space in her new school, the lack of natural features in our urban neighborhood, and the lack of access to food not served or prepared by anyone but Mother Nature. That’s when the begging and whining for sweet snacks really began.

It took me a good long while to put two and two together, but I realized that kids have a profound need for gathering and eating food of their own choosing. And in the context of hunter-gatherer or agricultural societies, this instinct meant survivial. Today, it means Type II diabetes and a lifetime of struggle with junk food.

I am not a fan of the so-called “war on obesity”. I think it blames kids for being kids, and targets some kids over others – when in reality, the thin child on a junk food diet won’t be a healthy adult, any more than a chubby kid who eats the same way. Instead, we need a “war” on our kids’ food environment and the corporations that perpetuate the tidal wave of junk food marketed to kids. We need healthy treats in every park, working farms in every school, and spaces for kids to be in the sunshine and dirt, moving their bodies without shame or prodding.

It’s not our kids’ desire for food that is the problem. It is the quality and content of the food available that is the problem. My latest endeavor is to change that food environment, at least in my little corner of the world. My daughter and I, together with my best friend Lilia, are starting Little Bee Pops. We’re going to make popsicles out of nothing but farm-fresh produce and local honey, and sell them at our local parks and farmers’ markets. It’s not going to change the world, but it’s going to provide an alternative to the corn syrup-laden treats that my daughter begs me for. For all us “mean moms”, it’s an opportunity to say YES and celebrate the joys of healthy food, simply prepared. And we are hoping to go beyond that – to become a kitchen incubator for other small, sustainable food businesses here in Silicon Valley.

When neighborhood farms are the norm, small healthy food companies abound, and school gardens are commonplace, food can become something to celebrate instead of fear. Because in a healthy food environment, there’s no reason to restrict or bargain or bribe. Food can and should be a joyful, normal part of childhood. I hope I see the day where us parents will be able to relax, sit back, and enjoy the broccoli.

Guest post: Food Flight App

Debra Moffitt is the kids’ editor at KidsHealth.org, the #1 website on children’s health and development. Nonprofit and physician-led, more than 50 of the nation’s top children’s hospitals include KidsHealth content on their websites. Visit us at www.KidsHealth.org.

If you think eating right is confusing, imagine how kids feel. Like grownups, they’re surrounded by nutrition messages (Low-fat!/100% natural!/Packed with Omega 3s!). They want to be healthy and they definitely don’t want to be overweight. But they’re not adults and they don’t buy the groceries, or call all the shots. Plus, they’re immersed in a kid food culture that’s a blizzard of French fries, chicken nuggets, processed snacks, and sugary drinks.

So if you’re going to reach them, you are going to need a cute snowman and some simple messages. That was our thinking behind Food Flight, a new, free app from KidsHealth.org.

http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/food-flight/id468644447?mt=8

With a tilt this way and that, players can position the snowman to eat the food that’s falling from the sky like snow. The five food groups are well represented (fruits, vegetables, whole grain foods, protein foods, and low-fat dairy), but soda and cinnamon rolls are falling, too. We also mixed in holiday treats like Christmas cookies, pumpkin pie, and candy canes.

So kids ages 4 and up will like the novelty of their task – feeding a snowman a day’s worth of sky-fresh food. But behind the scenes, Food Flight was designed to teach kids basic rules about balance, choices, and how much is too much when it comes to treats.

There’s pressure to reduce subject of nutrition to a few, digestible tips. It’s not that easy. Nutrition is a science, after all, and we’re all trying to apply best practices as those best practices are continually revised and refined.

But you have to start somewhere, especially with kids, so we started with these five principles. We hope kids will enjoy our app and families will use it to talk about food choices.

Principle 1: Some foods are better than others. A banana is better for you than a doughnut. Kids win the game when they feed the snowman all (or nearly all) nutritious foods.

Principle 2: People (and snowmen) need a certain number of calories every day. We picked 2,000 calories because that’s an average per day amount for school-age kids. (The range is 1,600 to 2,400, depending on age and activity level.) Daily calories are like a bank account so kids should spend their calories wisely every day.

Principle 3: There isn’t much room in anyone’s diet for low-nutrient foods. Everyone needs calories to deliver nutrition. Vitamins and nutrients keep a kid’s body working and growing the way it should. Players win Food Flight by feeding the snowman 90% or more of his daily calories in healthy foods. That means less than 200 calories in ice cream, potato chips, chocolate bars, and soda. The game ends early if kids overdo it.

Principle 4: Kids should eat a variety of foods. We used the food groups in the USDA’s MyPlate: fruits, vegetables, protein foods, whole-grain foods, and lowfat dairy. Even kids who win the game will be challenged to play again and focus on their weakest food group.

Principle 5: The holidays present a challenge to healthful eating.  That’s why we launched this app with a winter holiday theme. Like in the game, kids can have a cookie or candy cane and still win. They just can’t have a dozen of each. Our pediatricians at KidsHealth offer this simple tip: Limit holiday eating to a special day or two and live by these basic principles the rest of the year. Remember that it’s a holi-day, not a holi-week or month!

Great Family Recipes: Pumpkin Cookies with Caramel Frosting

My mom makes the best pumpkin cookies. I have not tried making them gluten free yet (I don’t have a lot of time). They are great without frosting, but if you have the ingredients and the time, you might as well frost them.

Mary’s Pumpkin Cookies

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup shortening
  • 1 egg
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 cup pumpkin
  • 1 cup raisins or dates, cut up
  • 1 cup chopped nuts
  • 1 tsp vanilla

Sift flour, soda, salt, baking powder, and cinnamon. Cream shortening and sugar. Add egg and beat well. Add dry ingredients, raisins or dates, nuts, pumpkin and vanilla. Drop by teaspoonfuls on greased cookie sheet. Bake 12-15 minutes at 350 degrees. Frost when cool. Makes about 90 cookies.

Caramel Frosting

Heat until just ready to boil:

  • 5 TBSP butter or margarine
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
  • 4 TBS milk

Remove from stove and add 1 cup sifted powdered sugar and 3/4 teaspoon vanilla. Beat until smooth (add more powdered sugar to reach desired consistency).

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I hope you have enjoyed December’s great family recipes series. I’m brainstorming a new series for January. Any suggestions for future posts are always welcome!

Last minute but thoughtful gift giving

If you are like me, you still have a little more to do to be totally ready for the holidays. Luckily for me I have purchased all the gifts, but not everything is wrapped and, sadly, some packages have not been mailed out in time for the holidays. Oh well, it’s the thought that counts, right?

One creative gift is to donate money to a favorite organization on behalf of a loved one. Here are my picks for deserving organizations working to change school food and battle child hunger:

Additionally, many bloggers, chefs, writers, and others have written up some terrific holiday gift ideas that I love:

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Thank you so much for reading my blog and reading my book this year. I hope you enjoy a simple holiday filled with love and fantastic food. I’m taking the weekend off to spend it with my family. Happy holidays!

Our summer trip to Rockford: Discovery center museum (part two)

I think there is value in taking inexpensive trips to places within a few hours drive from home. The current economic situation has put a damper on long distance travel and sometimes taking a “staycation” is boring with kids. My son can only stay inside for so long

As I blogged about last week…after we milked goats on the farm, we headed out to Discovery Center Museum in Rockford. We had a lot of fun inside the museum, but the real treat was outside.

The wooden play area and maze was huge, with swings at one end.

It was so fun for my son to run and jump on the wooden walkways.

The museum is situated along the river (pictured above — top corner). I had no idea there was a river in Rockford. Unfortunately, as we were leaving I didn’t snap any pictures of the bridges going over the river (I was driving so that would have been dangerous), but they were pretty, too.

The optical illusion room!

When we left Rockford, we swung down further south to catch a minor league baseball game, the Kane County Cougars. That weekend was all about our son: milking goats and hanging out at our CSA farm, going to a children’s museum, and attending our son’s first baseball game.

The field — that day was so hot. I’m missing that weather now.

What a great vacation!

Guest blog: Truck farm

Truck Farm!

Bio: Tim Magner is an environmental and social justice activist working to make a difference in the lives of youth. Over the span of more than two decades, Tim has worked with kids as a camp counselor, ski coach, golf instructor, tutor, school board member, school council member, Big Brother, and, over the last three years, an author and Truck Farmer making more than 100 school appearances. Based in Chicago, Tim understands that in order to impact the lives of those changing the world, he’s got to understand the world and he supports connecting kids to nature and exercise, early and often. His belief main belief is that education ought to be practical, relevant, hands-on and develop the whole child (not just above the neck and to one side of the brain). He advocates for wider curriculum, better metrics and encourages kids to find and follow their passions. Read more about Tim: Top 10 Questions with Tim

Along with non-profit partner Seven Generations Ahead, I ran Truck Farm Chicago this year. It’s a mobile farm in the back of a pick-up truck (running biodiesel). We use the farm-on-wheels as a prop to connect students to food and conduct programming around health.

When the opportunity to run Truck Farm came up, I jumped. I grew up with vegetable gardens, worked on a farm (if you count volunteering at City Farm), know a bit about the food system and have eaten in plenty of CPS cafeterias. As a visiting children’s book author, I’ve been told by teachers that I’m crazy when I ask to eat the same food the kids eat.

If the food system is broken, where insanity is sanity and sanity is insanity, it’s exhilarating to join the movement for something better. Obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer are 100% preventable. So working with kids preventing problems makes sense. Kids learn no matter what. If we serve them foods loaded with sugar, fat and salt, they learn it’s OK to subsist on foods loaded with sugar, fat and salt. And then we demand their growing, restless bodies sit in their desks all day and prepare to perform well on tests. Crazy.

We advocate taking—and teaching—a wider view, where understanding connections leads to making better food choices and to joining the movement to build a better food system, including more jobs and more vibrant communities, with lower healthcare costs and cleaner air and water. Truck Farm’s thrilled to be one tiny participant in a the food movement who’s lucky enough to spend time with kids.

Growing food in the back of a truck is a novel concept. No matter the neighborhood, the ethnicity or the age of the students, Truck Farm has a ‘Wow’ or ‘Cool’ factor. We leverage that attention for practical education. We ask students all sorts of questions, from ‘What’s growing here?’ to “Why do we eat food?” and “Why does it matter what we eat?” We always do tastings. Spinach, scallions, basil and chocolate mint leaves were regulars. Strawberries & cherry tomatoes were favorites. My favorite line came from a child harvesting a carrot. He yanked out a small one and said, “Oh, no, not quite ready” and shoved it back in. At markets and festivals, when offering raw leaves, to a child, parents would whisper to us, “my kid won’t eat veggies.” We turn around and  their child is chomping on a chard leaf. Sometimes I wish adults would give children more credit. To start, just-picked food tastes better. Plus, if the child is involved (like choosing and picking, or planning and cooking), they’re more likely to eat it. Once kids understand what they eat makes a difference in how their bodies perform, there’s no telling what happens. We had students yelling for more kale once they found out it helped their muscles work better.

We were lucky enough to visit several schools on multiple occasions for comprehensive programming, including hands-on cooking classes, classroom nutrition education and garden installs. That will be our model for 2012. Again, we’ll spend more than 75% of our time on the south side & west side of Chicago, reaching kids who bear the greatest burden of the status quo.

Great Family Recipes: Cousin Luciano’s Pasta Carbonara

My family welcomed my husband into the family many years ago when we married. He wasn’t the first person of Chinese descent to marry into my paternal side of the family. But we didn’t have any Italian on that side. About five years ago my cousin Andrew married Luciano. I want to give you the back story, but I would be here awhile. Suffice it to say, it is a beautiful love story and “Luc” (pronounced “Looch“) has brought so many wonderful things into our lives. This recipe is one of them. It is the best pasta dish my husband and I have ever eaten:

Pasta Carbonara

  • 1 pkg pancetta (or 1/2 package bacon, depending)
  • 2 eggs
  • Pasta (it’s better to get spaghetti or fettucine)
  • Parmesan to taste (buy the good stuff)

Boil water and cook the pasta according to directions on the package. In the mean time, pan-fry the pancetta or the bacon. Beat the two eggs (with whites and all).

When the pasta is cooked, drain it. Quickly put it back in the saucepan (large is preferred). Chuck in the pancetta. Turn the stove back on and put the pasta back on the fire. Then quickly add the egg and STIR thoroughly, making sure the egg spreads evenly. Don’t cook it too long… You don’t want the egg to become golden or anything… It needs to be yellow and creamy.

Take off stove and serve with Parmesan.

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My husband and I have made this all different ways, gluten and dairy free included. Every time it’s amazing — there are no leftovers. I think the kind of pancetta you use is important. I don’t like the cubed pancetta at all. I like the thinly sliced stuff. And bacon works just fine, but I’m not Italian. I say a half-package of bacon because that’s enough for two people. Also, if you don’t have Parmesan, you won’t miss it. Recently, I bought a very hard Parmesan cheese  and decided to see if my system could tolerate it in this recipe (everyone kept telling me that hard cheeses are easier to digest). Good news: I tolerated a little without a problem (my body is healing!). Bad news: It added nothing to the dish and my husband requested that I omit the Parm in the future.