Smarter, healthier food choices

Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross wants Californians to fall in love with lunch ladies all over again

Karen Ross, Department of Food and Agriculture secretary.

Karen Ross, Department of Food and Agriculture secretary.

One exciting thing about the future of California agriculture is that the state grows nearly 400 commercially viable crops. This presents a huge opportunity to engage consumers and manufacturers, especially when it comes to health care and nutrition, which is why SN&R recently sat down with California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross. We discussed kids, diets and how we will decide what’s for dinner over the coming decades.

One of the big numbers being thrown around is that $1.9 billion of food is produced in this region, and $1.6 billion of this is eaten, but then only 2 percent of this food is eaten by Sacramentans. Additionally, we’re in an area that could grow significantly more food. Market forces have precluded this information. Meanwhile, eating more local food could have dramatic impact on rural counties. So what advice do you have? What should we be doing here?

Well, I think one is providing that information to consumers and retailers … about those exciting opportunities that are before us. And two is really having more local food [bought] here first, whatever it might be. … I look at the wonderful richness of our diverse ethnic populations here. And, understanding that part of the diversity of California agriculture is responding to those different foods from different ethnicities, [we need to] make sure people know that those foods are readily available here.

Where is your focus right now?

We can’t get our fiscal house in order, so we’ve been very laser-focused on that. Which is not a bad thing, because, for us here at the Department of Food and Agriculture, that’s really caused us to evaluate every program based on what is our core mission. And that is a somewhat limited, but critically important, core mission, which is to ensure safety, to protect the state from invasive species and animal diseases, and to protect consumers and the marketplace for fair transactions with regard to weights and measures, which is something that probably more directly touches consumers without them even knowing it. Every weighing device in the state … all have to be verified by our department.

So what things do you think we should be doing as a country when it comes to food and farming?

I think there are a lot of really great things going on right now. One is that there is a whole new awareness of the health of our kids. And that’s our future. … And what can be done there … is education. First, you build awareness, you do education, you measure what the results of that are, and, hopefully, you’ve got improvement. By focusing on the health of our kids, it helps us understand where we, as a society, can help change behavior. And behavior not just of the children but also of the families themselves, which is why I think education is so important.

It’s also creating an atmosphere that’s supportive of making good choices of food. So it’s a whole new level of understanding of [the] choice between highly processed, highly sweetened snack food or an apple. How do we help a kid grow up being excited that they get to make that choice—and that they can make an informed choice—about that?

I remember when I was growing up—it’s going to sound so old because I am old—it was a huge treat on Saturday night to get [a little bit of] soda pop. I mean, that was a treat. Once a week. This much soda pop was like a really big deal. And I think that’s changed a lot. If the cost was lower—

For vegetables? For fruit?

I don’t want to get into a subsidy discussion, because we aren’t that reliant on them. The cost of producing an apple is not going to change if we put $5 million into subsidies or not. The cost of producing an apple is the cost of producing an apple. Right?

If we look at the whole school-lunch program [we need to] start to change toward more … locally grown, or more fruits and vegetables, or preparing meals on-site.

When I grew up, the lunch ladies actually cooked in the schools. And even [now], at my school where I grew up, they no longer have kitchen facilities. It’s all about prepackaged, heated-up kind of stuff. So the investment to change the school-lunch program is going to be significant, because it has to start with the facilities.

This creates more jobs and better kinds of food.

Hopefully both of those can be accomplished. And people can fall in love with the lunch ladies again!