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Help children avoid the summer slump

School diet and exercise policies may not be ideal, but research shows that they provide a healthier environment than many children have during summer vacation.

The American Journal of Public Health reported in 2007 that weight gain spiked during the summer between kindergarten and first grade. The difference was especially large for black children, Hispanic children and children who were already overweight at the beginning of kindergarten.

"Instead of scheduled meals and snacks, children at home during summer break may have continuous access to unhealthy snacks,” said Carly Marino, the coordinator of the UC Cooperative Extension Children's Power Play! Campaign in Los Angeles County. “In place of recess, children may spend more time watching television and playing video games. It all adds up to more calories consumed and fewer burned."

Marino is working with the Boys & Girls Club of East Los Angeles to prevent local low-income children’s summer slump. They hosted a week-long program that included lessons on how much sugar is in soft drinks and how many fruits and vegetables to eat. The children participated in a fitness obstacle course and water games in the Boys & Girls Club swimming pool.

As a general rule, elementary school children should get 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day, which can be done throughout the day for at least 10 minutes at a time. They should eat two-and-a-half to five cups of fruits and vegetables every day.

"Parents can help their kids stay on track this summer by including more fruits and vegetables in meals and snacks, limiting screen time and being positive role models," Marino said. "One of the best ways for parents
to help kids get active and maintain healthy eating habits is by enrolling them into a summer activity program, which provides scheduled play and snacks, as well as a safe place for children to learn and grow while parents

The program in Los Angeles was part of the California state Champions for Change campaign. Champions for Change suggests families adopt three simple rules:

  1. Eat more fruits and vegetables.
  2. Be more active.
  3. Speak up for healthy changes.

Children should get 60 minutes a day of exercise.
Children should get 60 minutes a day of exercise.

Posted on Wednesday, June 30, 2010 at 7:04 AM

Farmers markets welcome food stamp shoppers

Don't take any wooden nickels? When the new Oak Park Farmers' Market in Sacramento opened last month, organizers made sure to have wooden tokens ready for opening day. Farmers' selling at farmers' markets and flea markets all over California will gladly accept wooden nickels, plastic tokens, or paper "market dollars" this summer in exchange for good food.

The Stockton Farmers Market under the crosstown freeway is wide awake at 7 every Saturday morning all year round, crowded with farmers and shoppers conducting a brisk business in fresh local fruits and vegetables, fish, eggs, tofu, flowers and lots more, often talking four or five different languages but managing just fine to communicate with each other. Every Saturday, thousands of dollars of sales are transacted using bright green plastic tokens. The tokens are part of a program by farmers' markets throughout California to ensure that the markets are accessible to all Californians.

Paper food stamps haven't existed in California since 2004, but many people still use the old name, food stamp program, when they talk about what is now the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). As a result of high unemployment and hard times, one in eight Americans receives SNAP benefits to purchase food. SNAP benefits are now issued electronically, and SNAP recipients shop using electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards, which work like debit cards.

Farmers market vendors usually don't have the electricity, phone lines and authorization from the USDA needed to accept EBT cards as payment, so farmers market managers need to set up scrip systems for customers to use the cards. A market staff person swipes the card using a state-issued wireless terminal and sells the customer tokens to shop with. At the end of the market day, market vendors exchange any tokens received that day for cash from the market staff.

This year, help is available to market managers and associations implementing and promoting EBT access at their markets and welcoming SNAP customers:

  • First, markets need to apply to be a SNAP retailer
  • The California Department of Social Services will provide a free wireless terminal to any California market authorized by USDA to operate an EBT/scrip system. Contact Dianne Padilla-Bates, (916) 654-1396,
  • The Ecology Center Farmers' Market EBT Project, partially funded by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, will help market managers and associations with free consultation, free tokens, with setting up staffing, accounting, vendor training and with building community partnerships and designing custom posters and flyers to promote the markets to SNAP customers.
  • To encourage more markets to open their stalls to SNAP customers, the USDA has just released its own How-to Handbook for accepting EBT at farmers' markets

Posted on Monday, June 28, 2010 at 1:25 PM

I’m fat. Whose fault is that?

As the workshop speaker explained that school foods are contributing to the growing epidemic of obesity among children, I slumped in my chair and flashed back to high school. At the 10:20 a.m. break, I could be found standing in line at the high school snack bar ordering a chocolate milk shake and a bag of nacho cheese Doritos. Daily.

UC Berkeley professor Michael Pollan and others argue that farm policy is to blame for our corpulence. Many reference a 2002 USDA-ERS study that shows Americans ate 12 percent more (300 calories) in 2000 than we did in 1985, and point out that the federal government subsidizes common ingredients of snack foods -- corn, wheat, soybeans and rice -- making them cheaper and more available to consumers.

But UC ag economists Julian Alston and Dan Sumner, who analyzed the links between farm policies and obesity, disagree.

"Farm prices are a small share of retail prices so even if subsidies made farm prices lower and those were passed on, they would have little retail impact," Sumner told me. "Moreover, for some important products such as dairy and sugar, farm policies raise prices."

Policies are being made to steer us toward more healthful choices. For example, soda cannot be sold in California schools. Growing up, I had unlimited access to soda. As an adult, I eschew soda. It’s hard to say whether my beverage preference changed due to education or just being a finicky eater, but informing consumers can influence their food choices.

The new law mandating publishing calories on menus has had a modest effect on purchases, but over the course of a year, could prevent a person from gaining 4 to 8 pounds, said Gail Woodward-Lopez, co-director of the Center for Weight and Health at UC Berkeley.

Lucia Kaiser, UC Davis nutrition specialist, reports that low-income consumers will buy fresh fruits and vegetables if given an incentive. In a Los Angeles pilot project, mothers were given $40 to buy fruits and vegetables. The study found that 6 months later, the women continued to consume more fresh produce.

Virtually all children attending public schools are offered school lunches. Many California schools have begun farm-to-school programs, working with local farmers to offer students fresh salad bars. Past UC studies have shown that students given a choice of fresh fruits and vegetables will eat them.

“Uniting policy with education is the way to go,” says Woodward-Lopez.

Despite my steady diet of junk food as a youth, my weight didn’t expand into triple digits until my mid-30s. Now I exercise, avoid chips and shakes and eat lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, but have become fat. Whose fault is that?

Presentations made by Alston, Woodward-Lopez, Kaiser and others at the Farm and Food Policy and Obesity workshop are posted at


Posted on Friday, June 25, 2010 at 7:22 AM

*Advergames* market junk foods to children

On the McDonalds Happy Meals website, children can make themselves the star of a music video. Kids are challenged to send pastries soaring over as many toasters as possible on the Pop-Tarts website's "Daredevil Toaster Jump." Cheetos lets kids upload a picture or video of a Cheeto to have its website’s “state-of-the-art analyzer thingy” determine what it resembles.

These and other “advergames” can have a tremendous impact on children’s preferences and purchasing requests for unhealthy foods, according to Jennifer Culp, a UC Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program training coordinator.

Culp and Diana Cassady, associate professor of public health sciences at UC Davis, analyzed the restaurant, beverage and food websites advertised on the Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon weekday afternoons and Saturday mornings between August 2006 and March 2007. In all, the duo reviewed 19 websites, 290 Web pages and 247 advergames.

Close to one-third of the TV advertising that included websites was for food. Eighty-four percent of the food websites advertised included advergames, a blend of interactive animation, video content and advertising which promote corporate branding and products. On average, one nutrition or physical activity message appeared for every 45 brand identifiers.

"I was astounded by how often logos or actual food products were integrated into the games," Culp said.

Some games used candy or cereal as game pieces, while others would require special codes – available only by buying a specific product – to advance to higher game levels, she said.

The study concluded that government regulations are needed for food companies targeting youths and health professionals and parents should monitor food industry marketing practices.

The study, funded by the Cancer Research Program, was published in the May issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

The UC website EatFit! aimed primarily at teenagers, offers fun activities and information about eating right. Website visitors can find healthy recipes and games, conduct an eating analysis and get exercise tips. It's all free.

Posted on Wednesday, June 23, 2010 at 5:46 AM

Food blogs everywhere!

Food blog here, food blog there, food blog everywhere — including this one!  The popularity and variety of food blogs has exploded, and proves many of us are little foodies at heart. In doing research for this post, I have to admit, I couldn’t believe what’s out there, especially about cooking. From vegan to Indian to coffee to crock pots to cooking with kids to Asian grandmothers to organic, it’s all there waiting for you.

The popularity and importance of food content is well documented. Last summer, the Huffington Post reported on the results of the July cable news ratings. The Food Network beat out all of the cable news networks - FOX, MSNBC and CNN - in every demographic measurement. This in spite of the fact that July was a big news month because of the death of Michael Jackson.

In most cases, blogs are about much more than food. Sometimes you get to know the writer’s family or garden or politics. When you find a good one, the photos are stunning. Whether or not we make the food that’s being blogged about, we can still have a little “flog” experience right in our own kitchen.

Here’s a link to the best cooking food blogs according to — guilty, but calorie-free, pleasures!

Posted on Monday, June 21, 2010 at 5:08 AM

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