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Imagine there’s no hunger ... It’s easy if you try

At 925 million, the number of hungry people in the world is unacceptably high.

To combat world hunger, many scientists are working on developing crops that can resist disease and withstand the elements, from drought to floods. One such scientist is Sean Cutler at UC Riverside, whose breakthrough discovery last year of pyrabactin has brought drought-tolerant crops closer to becoming reality and spawned new research in several labs around the world.

Pyrabactin is a synthetic chemical that mimics abscisic acid (ABA), a naturally produced stress hormone in plants that helps them cope with drought conditions by inhibiting growth. ABA has already been commercialized for agricultural use. But it has at least two disadvantages: it is light-sensitive and it is costly to make.

Enter pyrabactin. This chemical is relatively inexpensive, easy to make, and not sensitive to light. But is it free from drawbacks? Unfortunately, no. Unlike ABA, pyrabactin does not turn on all the “receptors” in the plant that need to be activated for drought-tolerance to fully take hold.

What does that mean? A brief lesson on receptors may be in order.

A receptor is a protein molecule in a cell to which mobile signaling molecules – such as ABA or pyrabactin, each of which turns on stress-signaling pathways in plants – may attach. Usually at the top of a signaling pathway, the receptor functions like a boss relaying orders to the team below that then proceeds to execute particular decisions in the cell.

It turns out that each receptor is equipped with a pocket, akin to a padlock, in which a chemical, like pyrabactin, can dock into, operating like a key. Even though the receptor pockets appear to be fairly similar in structure, subtle differences distinguish a pocket from its peers. The result is that while ABA, a product of evolution, can fit neatly in any of these pockets, pyrabactin is less successful. Still, pyrabactin, by being partially effective (it works better on seeds than on plant parts), serves as a leading molecule for devising new chemicals for controlling stress tolerance in plants.

Each receptor is equipped also with a lid that operates like a gate. For the receptor to be activated, the lid must remain closed. Pyrabactin is effective at closing the gate on some receptors, turning them on, but cannot close the gate on others.

Cutler and colleagues have now cracked the molecular basis of this behavior. In a receptor where the gate closes, they have found that pyrabactin fits in snugly to allow the gate to close. In a receptor not activated by pyrabactin, however, the chemical binds in a way that prevents the gate from closing and activating the receptor.

“These insights suggest new strategies for modifying pyrabactin and related compounds so that they fit properly into the pockets of other receptors,” Cutler says. “If a derivative of pyrabactin could be found that is capable of turning on all the receptors for drought tolerance, the implications for agriculture are enormous.”

So he and his colleagues continue their research on pyrabactin derivatives, having set their eyes on the prize: An ABA-mimicking, inexpensive and light-insensitive chemical that can be sprayed easily on corn, soy bean and other crops to help them survive drought – one effective approach to combating and preventing hunger worldwide.
Imagine that!

Posted on Wednesday, September 22, 2010 at 6:44 AM

What makes food grow - and why that matters

There’s a lot of attention paid to where food comes from nowadays. Less attention has been paid to what helps that food grow, but that’s an important part of the equation. Whether organic or conventionally grown, the tomatoes, lettuce, plums and other food we eat rely on nutrients in order to grow. One of the most important nutrients for plant productivity is nitrogen.

Nitrogen, which is ubiquitous in our atmosphere in a relatively inert, gaseous form, is not available to most plants unless it is transformed into a reactive form and added to soil, where plants can use it to grow. Most often nitrogen is applied to fields in the form of synthetic fertilizer, although organic production relies on other nitrogen sources, such as cover crops, manure, fish meal and poultry waste.

Agricultural production depends on nitrogen in order to grow reliable, high yielding crops. But this nitrogen, when it is applied to fields in the reactive form that plants can use, also tends to leak out into air and water and cause pollution when all the nitrogen applied to the field is not used up by the plants.

The California Nitrogen Assessment, a project of the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis, is taking a hard look at the whole system of nitrogen use in California. While nitrogen is hugely important to producing the food and fiber that we all need, there may be ways to use it more efficiently and reduce the pollution problems it can cause. These problems include air and water pollution, which can have negative consequences for human and environmental health in California.

Since nitrogen is so important to producing the food that all of us eat, the Agricultural Sustainability Institute’s team has involved stakeholders from all around the agricultural system. The assessment team has sought insight from farmers and economists, policy makers and public health groups, and Californians whose drinking water has been polluted by nitrogen, forcing them to buy bottled water on a regular basis. There are many diverse perspectives and ideas about how nitrogen should be managed in California’s future. The assessment will provide a synthesis of the most up-to-date scientific knowledge on science, policy and practice to inform decision making on how to improve nitrogen management.

Thinking about where food comes from is one important part of understanding the food system. Learning about the trade-offs involved in other key agricultural inputs is another.

Find out more about nitrogen and the California Nitrogen Assessment at its website. If you are interested in becoming involved in the assessment as a stakeholder participant, visit the website for more information to learn how you can get involved.

Posted on Monday, September 20, 2010 at 6:33 AM
  • Author: Stephanie Ogburn

Small changes are a big step towards health

Amidst recent headlines that the United States population falls short in consuming the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables, a group of dedicated parents in California’s Central Valley have demonstrated that one small change is a big step towards health for children and families.

Fresh tomatoes add vitamins A & C to this parent's dish.

As part of the City of Fresno Parks and Recreation Department’s Healthy Lifestyle and Fitness Camp for Kids, parents and kids participated in a series of nutrition education classes lead by the UC Cooperative Extension’s Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program (FSNEP).

Following several weeks of classes on reducing fat, sugar and salt, and increasing whole grains, low-fat dairy and fruits and vegetables, groups of parents were invited to flex their nutrition muscles by making small changes to some of their family’s favorite recipes. Their goal? Improve the nutritional value of their dishes through small changes like increasing fruits and vegetables while decreasing ingredients high in fat, sugar and salt.

Fresh vegetables are a great addition; frozen veggies are also a great choice.

Competition was healthy as teams of parents assembled their entries for the City of Fresno’s Inaugural Healthy Lifestyle and Fitness Camp Parent Cook Off. Think Bravo’s Top Chef meets Food Network’s Challenge, minus all the truffle oil and stage lighting. FSNEP educators were nutrition education partners with the parents to note original recipe and the parents' creative changes.

Not your average pizza. Small changes like using whole grain tortillas, fresh tomatoes and light cheese improve the nutritional value of this family favorite.

Fruit and yogurt are a perfect pair.

Judges that lent their palettes to parents’ culinary adventures included: local Kaiser Permanete nurses, fitness camp counselors including Amanda Cogdill, recreation specialist, and UC Cooperative extension’s Jeanette Sutherlin, county director, and Connie Schneider, nutrition, family and consumer sciences advisor.

One of the winning recipes was the taffy apple pizza. Parents cut the fat and sugar drastically and paid attention to portion size to make this family favorite a healthy hit! It was so popular, camp counselors prepared it for the parents’ children participating in the Healthy Lifestyle and Fitness camp.

One of the winning parent groups is recognized for their efforts.

Healthy food tastes great!

What small change can you make to your family’s favorites?

Taffy Apple Pizza- Original Recipe
Makes 16 servings

1 package refrigerated sugar cookie dough
½ teaspoon vanilla
1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese softened
½ cup brown sugar
¼ cup creamy peanut butter
3 medium Granny Smith apples
¼ cup caramel ice cream topping
½ cup peanuts, chopped

Nutrition Facts
Serving size: 1 Slice
Calories: 150
Total Fat: 9g
Sat. Fat: 4g
Cholesterol: 15 mg
Sodium: 85mg
Total Carbohydrate: 16g
Dietary fiber: 1g
Sugars: 10g
Protein: 3g


Taffy Apple  Pizza - Winning Recipe
Healthier substitutions indicated with asterisks**
Makes 32 servings

1 box low-fat graham crackers**
½ teaspoon vanilla
1 package (8 ounces) fat free cream cheese, softened**
¼ cup packed brown sugar**
¼ cup reduced fat creamy peanut butter**
3 medium Granny Smith apples
¼ cup sugar free caramel ice cream topping**
½ cup peanuts chopped

1. Mix cream cheese, vanilla, brown sugar and peanut butter in small bowl
2. Spread mixture on graham crackers
3. Thinly slice apples
4. Arrange apple slices on graham crackers
5. Drizzle with caramel sauce
6. Sprinkle with peanuts

Nutrition Facts
Serving size: 1/2 cracker
Calories: 60
Total Fat: 2g
Sat. Fat: 0g
Cholesterol: 0mg
Sodium: 65mg
Total Carbohydrate: 8g
Dietary Fiber: less than 1g
Sugars: 4g
Protein: 2g

Posted on Friday, September 17, 2010 at 6:58 AM
  • Author: Shelby MacNab

Lunch ladies deserve the nation's support

The lunch lady at Cabrillo Middle School in Ventura, Calif., delivered the best commencement speech I’ve ever heard. In mid-June, Rita Pisani, whose passion is nourishing the bodies and spirits of people by preparing and serving them good food, spoke to more than 800 eighth-grade graduates and the well over 1,000 people who came to cheer them on.

Having a lunch lady be the featured speaker at an eighth-grade promotion might raise the eyebrows of some, but for this school and this school district, it makes sense. Cabrillo is part of the Ventura Unified School District, which operates farm-to-school salad bar programs at 17 campuses, and has gained national attention as an early adopter of farm-to-school and innovative nutrition programs. The farm-to-school program is part of the larger Healthy Schools Program, which also provides nutrition education and support for school gardens.

The choice of Rita Pisani as the person to deliver the parting words of wisdom to teens embarking on their high school journey also made a lot of sense in terms of a national context. With a White House supporting good food, gardening and obesity prevention initiatives, with the USDA sponsoring its People’s Garden Initiative, with farm-to-school and other good food advocates challenging the status quo with the school lunch program, it makes sense that someone like Mrs. Pisani – who has dedicated her life to feeding people, especially kids – should be heard. Food, after all – especially good food – is central to the health and well being of our youth and central to our success and security as a nation in the future.

Mrs. Pisani told a compelling story about a young girl. Born in wartime Italy, this girl’s hearing was severely damaged by bombing raids that occurred when she was very young.  (The girl’s hearing loss was not fully diagnosed until she was 25; it was determined to be 80 percent in both ears, and she had surgery and was given hearing aids). Knowing that being “different” might result in limited opportunities for her daughter, the girl’s mother taught her how to read lips, analyze facial and eye expressions, and study gestures. As an eighth-grader the girl immigrated to the United States and was immersed in English-only classes, even though she spoke only Italian. A dedicated teacher spent two hours a day helping the girl learn English. The surprise ending? That girl was Rita Pisani, the lunch lady.

Mrs. Pisani shared her belief that this is exactly the time in life when these young people will have to make decisions, particularly about the kind of people they will be. And they are of an age where they will have to live with their choices. (And one choice she strongly encouraged them to make? Don’t cut in line!).

Some of the most important choices will center on how these teens choose to care for and nourish their bodies. As citizens and taxpayers, it’s in our best interest to make sure that good food choices in public schools are the norm, not the exception.

Lawmakers are taking action on the issue of childhood nutrition. Before its August recess, the Senate passed S3307 (the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act), which would invest $4.5 billion into child nutrition.  The clincher? It offset the proposed increase to childhood nutrition programs by suggesting a $2.2 billion reduction in the SNAP (formerly Food Stamps) program, where need is growing due to the nation’s dire economic situation. Over the summer, the House Education and Labor Committee passed HR 5504 (Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act), which would invest $8 billion in childhood nutrition; however, the bill is stalled, because funds to pay for this have not been located.

The Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization Act, a major omnibus bill, includes numerous components, and is also stalled in Congress. It is renewed on a five-year cycle; Congress should have renewed it in 2009, but the national dialog about health care delayed discussion and passage. The bill has been extended until Sept. 30, 2010.  It encompasses the National School Lunch Program; the School Breakfast Program; the Child and Adult Care Food Program; the Summer Food Service Program; Women, Infants and Children (WIC), including, the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program; the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program; and the Special Milk Program. Because the Act is so large and comprehensive, it’s important for citizens to learn more about it and its components.  Information is available at

All of the legislation described above affects children and lunch ladies across the nation, lunch ladies like Mrs. Pisani. I have considered Mrs. Pisani’s words over and over the last few months. As she concluded her remarks, she told Cabrillo students, “I love to cook for people and serve them food. This is my passion. I have done it as a head chef, restaurant owner and caterer most of my life. This is why now I am happy to be your lunch lady.” Cabrillo’s principal, Glory Page, made an important observation about Mrs. Pisani: “She serves food, but more importantly, she serves kids.”

Lunch ladies do serve kids, in all sorts of ways. I loved my lunch lady, Mrs. Ketchell, who helped us work through challenges and life problems by engaging us to work alongside her in the cafeteria at Joshua Elementary School. The privilege of working in the cafeteria was reserved for older students. We couldn’t wait for our week to help prepare and serve food, and clean the cafeteria after lunch. It connected us to caring adults, it instilled in us a work ethic, it honored the collaborative and community nature of food preparation and eating, it enabled us to serve other students and it connected us to our food.

Times have changed, but the hearts of lunch ladies haven’t.  It’s up to us to make it possible for them to even more effectively serve kids by giving them the money they need to serve those kids good food. The choice of commencement speaker couldn’t have been better or more relevant to this national moment. Thank you, Mrs. Pisani, for great lunches and great lessons.

Posted on Wednesday, September 15, 2010 at 6:42 AM

Good food for all: L.A. tackles food policies

With a population of more than 10 million residents, Los Angeles County faces enormous challenges related to poverty and hunger. Over a million L.A. County residents face hunger or food insecurity every day, according to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. A Sept. 6 Los Angeles Times article detailed the problems faced by local food pantries, as they struggle to cope with a demand for food that’s risen by 48 percent in just two years. At the same time, with cheap fast food, and limited access to affordable healthy food, childhood obesity is an increasingly critical problem. Forty percent of middle-school age children in Los Angeles County are now classified as overweight or obese.

Local elected officials are embarking on an effort to more systematically address these issues. Last fall, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa convened a group of experts, bringing together community organizers, restauranteurs, public health experts, employers, farmers, urban gardeners and others to form the Los Angeles Food Policy Task Force. This was a short-term effort to gather information and make recommendations to the mayor and decision makers. The task force recently released a report, “The Good Food for All Agenda: Creating a New Regional Food System for Los Angeles,” outlining an ambitious plan for improving access to healthy food in Los Angeles.

The task force defined “good food” as food that is healthy, affordable, fair (meaning that all participants in the food supply chain receive fair compensation) and produced sustainably, using principles of environmental stewardship.

Some of the task force's recommendations were:

  • Develop a regional food hub, which can coordinate supply and demand for local, sustainable food. (Farms in several counties were included in the definition of “local” for the Los Angeles area).
  • Encourage school districts to procure sustainable, local food and provide children with higher quality lunches.
  • Promote and improve participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program.
  • Facilitate neighborhood food production by streamlining permits for community gardens, and expanding joint use agreements where schools offer their land for community gardens.
  • Start an ongoing regional food policy council, which will include both city and county decision makers and community leaders.

While Los Angeles is just one of a number of major metropolitan areas to form a task force of this nature, it’s exciting to see the state (and nation’s) most populous county addressing food policy issues. Although Los Angeles County has a relatively small number of farms, neighboring counties, including Ventura, still have significant commercial agriculture. Policies like those recommended by the L.A. Task Force not only improve choices and healthy options for consumers, they can also lead to new markets for local farmers.

UC ANR programs, such as UC Cooperative Extension in Los Angeles County, offer research-based expertise in urban gardening, nutrition education, sustainable food production and more, and serve as a resource for local policymakers and residents working to improve food access. To learn more about the L.A. Food Policy Task Force and read the Good Food for All Agenda, see

Improving access to local produce is part of the
Improving access to local produce is part of the "Good Food For All" Agenda.

Posted on Monday, September 13, 2010 at 6:27 AM

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