Fresh vs. fast
Chico State works to introduce kids to healthful eats, including ethnic produce
When a nutrition specialist at Chico State told a local Hmong-American farmer about a university program aimed at forging a connection between children and the food they eat, he laughed at a notion that was as foreign to him as the tropical rice paddies and lychee orchards of Laos might be to the average Chico kindergartner.
“He grew up farming, and he thought the idea of not knowing where your food is from was hilarious,” said Sheila St. Cin, a health-education specialist at Chico State’s Center for Nutrition and Activity Promotion. “A lot of people in Laos don’t even go to school because they’re busy growing their own food.”
The farmer, Patrick Yang, a native Laotian, keeps a year-round stall at the Saturday Chico Certified Farmers Market where, like many Hmong immigrants who live in the North State, he and his wife, Chue, sell a wealth of vegetables and greens grown on their small plot just outside Chico. Snow peas, Chinese cabbage, mustard greens, and bok choy are a few of the better-known items that seasonally occupy their market space.
But many Americans remain strangers to such “ethnic produce,” the joy of cooking these vegetables, and, especially, the process of growing and harvesting them. Even children of recent immigrants are losing touch with their traditional ways of farming as they and their families turn to diets of processed foods and pre-made meals. Though a recent university survey found that many local Hmong adults wished to see their children embrace traditional ways, forceful exposure to mainstream, often unhealthful, American foods is almost inevitable for the younger generation.
“Their kids are in school, and they’re becoming associated with processed, packaged foods,” said Bow Lee, a Chico State health-education specialist.
But the university is looking at possible ways to offset that trend. With a two-year seed grant of $150,000 from the USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, Chico State will bring cooking demonstrations to local low-income elementary schools in Gridley, Thermalito and Chico. The hope is for students to take home newfound enthusiasm to their own families’ kitchens. If subsequent surveys and focus groups show it to be successful, the program may be applied at a broader scale.
“We’ve been trying for years to get the message to parents that their kids need to eat fresh, unprocessed foods, and we’ve finally realized that the best way to do that is through their kids,” said Stephanie Bianco-Simeral, a professor of nutrition at Chico State who is helping direct the program with colleagues Keiko Goto and Cindy Wolff.
Bianco-Simeral says household kitchens in and around Chico aren’t being used anywhere near enough—even among Hmong and Latino families, who often have close ties to their agrarian roots but seem to be losing them to the temptations of fast food and packaged retail items.
“Especially with low-income families, when they have two or three hours to spend at home with their kids, they don’t want to spend it cooking,” Bianco-Simeral said. She hopes the pilot program will spark a return to older-fashioned ideals by which cooking itself, and the kitchen, become the glue that holds a family together—not time considered wasted.
A second element of the pilot program, which will distribute cooking sets containing ingredients and recipes to 600 students at the three schools, is to create a cross-cultural interest in relatively unknown foods and recipes.
Local Hmong, who have been immigrating to the area for several decades and now number about 2,000 in Butte County, have tended to keep a segregated existence in the community, Lee said. This may protect elders from losing touch with food traditions, she observes, but it has also kept many of their dietary staples shrouded in mystery, and at farmers’ markets many shoppers intent on filling their bags with apples, pears and broccoli may pass up such arcane crops as daikon radish, sugarcane and lemongrass.
“Ethnic produce” also comes from New World cultures. Cactus pads, or nopales, are native to the New World and occur in Mexican cuisine. They are locally grown and may be stir-fried or boiled into Mexican soups, where their cool, aloe-like flesh can pleasantly balance a spicy, chili-based broth. Finely diced, tender cactus pads may also add nicely to curries—a bridge to Asian cuisine. Daikon radish can add a satisfying crunch to tomato-based Mexican salsas, for those who wish to cross the cultural gap from the other side.
Now available at the Saturday market are vegetables of many sorts, including mustard greens, kale, leeks, bok choy, and tender green pea shoots, which St. Cin, a regular patron of the Yang family’s produce stand, likes to stir-fry and serve over rice. She also has incorporated another Hmong technique into her own kitchen—boiling heaps of leafy vegetables and pouring them through a strainer as a rich green vegetable broth to be consumed like tea—a trick Patrick Yang brought to Chico from Laos.
Though cross-cultural trading in healthful eating habits still occurs, globalization has pushed the processed- and refined-foods culture into most nooks and crannies of the world. Chico is no exception, and one of the surest places for exposure to this phenomenon is in schools. Chico State’s nutritionists hope to rewrite this unhealthy arrangement with their two-year pilot program. Their battle will pit salted, sugared snacks against humble leafy greens, corporate food giants against small farmers, and drive-through ordering stations against the kitchen.