Evidence that Nutrition Assistance Programs Can Help Improve the Food Environment

What good are food stamps doing to nourish the hungry if participants spend it all on junk food?

This is a common critique of nutrition assistance programs, and for a good reason. That being said, many hunger advocates counter that today’s hungry often live in communities where fresh, healthy foods aren’t available, and that tightening the nutrition criteria for these assistance programs will leave participants with nowhere to turn. After all, a little bit of junk food is better than no food at all. However, a recent study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior demonstrates that when nutrition assistance programs update their offerings to reflect the latest in nutrition research, the foodscape improves to benefit everyone.

FRUIT SELECTION

Background from the study:

“Based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, the US Department of Agriculture changed the WIC Program’s supplemental food packages, addressing nutritional concerns of the panel by offering low-fat milks and whole grains, and including cash vouchers for fruits and vegetables. Before the change, WIC offered juice, milk, cereals, eggs, beans, and other foods. However, the milk was whole milk, cereals were not whole grain products, there was no option to include whole grain bread or rice, and there were no fruits and vegetables. This set of changes, the first in a generation, went into effect in most states, including Louisiana, in October, 2009.”

So what happened after these changes were introduced?

For this study, researchers visited small stores in New Orleans right when the change was introduced, and then again a year later. In 2009, only 3.7% of stores participating in the WIC program carried whole wheat bread or brown rice, but a year later, 70.4% offered whole wheat bread and 92.6% offered brown rice!

These drastic improvements aren’t just a sign of the times, but can largely be attributed to the changes in the WIC program. That’s because at non-WIC participating small stores in New Orleans in 2010, whole wheat bread was only offered at a meager 1.5% of stores, and brown rice was only offered in 12.1% of stores. Additionally, the study found that the number of varieties of fresh fruit significantly increased (from 3 to 4) at WIC stores, but not at the non-WIC stores, and average shelf space of all vegetables increased in WIC stores by about 1.2 meters.

VEGETABLE SHELF SPACE

These improvements in healthy food selection benefit all shoppers, not just those in the WIC program. Could similar improvements be made to other nutrition assistance programs? Weigh in!

Note: Despite these hopeful findings, food choices in depressed communities are in dire shape. For more on this topic, see my blog post on the link between hunger and obesity. Also, to learn more about the WIC program, see here.

- Kelly

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Root: Vegan Food for Carnivorous Palates

It’s refreshing to come across a menu that doesn’t use cheese as a crutch for vegetarian meals. At Root, a vegan restaurant, that’s not even an option.

Tortas

Tostada: Crispy corn tortillas topped with chili-spiced sweet potatoes, black bean and corn salsa, avocado, and (tofu based) crema, served with greens

If you have visions of rubbery “veggie meats” and endless tofu dishes, think again. In fact, you won’t even find tofu on the lunch or dinner menu (except cleverly blended into the house made aiolis). Clean eaters can still find superfood darlings, such as kale, quinoa, and beet juice. However, by creating whole-food versions of carnivorous favorites (hush puppies, burgers, tostadas, and more), the menu is approachable to people of all dietary patterns. The word vegan doesn’t even appear anywhere on the menu, so as not to isolate customers.

Tucked away in grungy Allston, Root is a clean oasis, with an atmosphere that reflects the food they serve. The small space is industrial, yet inviting, contrasting square, copper tables with an abundance of natural wood accents. Bicycle wheels decorate the walls. Water is served in mason jars. Root is counter service at lunch and dinner, but switches to table service for the weekend brunch.

At some vegetarian restaurants, such as Life Alive, all of the food tastes overwhelmingly of umami, with little differentiation between menu items. What distinguishes Root from its meat-free peers is that each dish has a unique flavor profile. Like the popular Boston vegetarian chain, Clover Food Lab, many dishes are Root are deep fried, and aren’t as healthy as the clean atmosphere and vegetable emphasis would have you believe. However, for the health conscious consumer like myself, there are many nutritious options.

Warm Kale Salad

Warm Kale Salad

One such item is the warm kale salad ($8). A hearty way to enjoy leafy greens during the winter months, this dish is a delightful bowl of lightly steamed kale, caramelized onions and bite-sized nuggets of roasted butternut squash. Dried cranberries, pepitas, and citrus miso dressing complete the bowl. Somehow, this generous salad leaves your body feeling nourished and content, even if you have just indulged in the artery clogging, yet oh so addictive, herbed fries and house made ketchup.

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Sweet Potato Quesadilla

Kale takes on an entirely different persona in the sweet potato quesadilla ($8). This appetizer-sized dish consists of a flour tortilla filled with sweet potato, kale, and sautéed onion. Rather than relying on a processed, vegan soy cheese to bind the quesadilla together, the dish is served with a creamy thyme sauce made from cashews. This rich, hearty sauce is also the secret to the delicious eggplant caprese sandwich.

If you’re looking for southwestern flavors, your best bet is the torta ($10 with choice of fries or side salad). Chili-lime black beans, tomatoes, avocado, pickled onion, and fried jalapeno, are pressed together in a locally made Iggy’s bun. The toasted bread is the perfect vehicle for the warm black beans and pickled veggies, while the avocado tones down the heat from the perfectly crisp jalapenos.

Other noteworthy dishes include the made-from-scratch black bean and quinoa based “root burger” and the famously fluffy vanilla pancakes (the secret is the coconut oil). With a menu this inviting, plant based diets have never seemed more mainstream. And at this inspired eatery, that is precisely the intent.

Root is located at 487 Cambridge Street, Allston, MA. info@rootboston.com, 617-208-6091. Hours: Monday-Friday: 11am-10pm, Saturday-Sunday: 9:30am-10pm.

- Kelly

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Published

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I am proud to announce that I accomplished one of my major bucket list goals today: getting published in print!

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My food/travel story about Austin, TX is in today’s issue of the Boston Globe (page G 23). You can also read it online here. I first got connected with the Globe after taking Sheryl Julian’s food writing class in the Boston University Gastronomy program (which I highly recommend for any aspiring food writers). While the subject matter of the article couldn’t be much further from health or sustainability, I am pleased to be a published food writer and photographer. I also added a new ‘Press’ page to my website. Any ideas for my next story?

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- Kelly

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Cheesy Chickpea Kale Salad with Nectarines and Corn

Cheesy Chickpea Kale Salad with Nectarines and Corn

Ashley and I spend our workdays reading about atrazine contamination and pesticide poisonings, so when I found out that she had never seen Erin Brockovich, I knew we needed a movie night. And what goes better with a girl-power, kick-corporate-butt movie than a beautiful, healthy, plant-based dinner?

Because Ashley recently acquired a sourdough starter (from 1890!!!), she brought homemade whole-wheat sourdough bread and homemade sourdough crackers. Yum! A hearty summer salad was a natural pairing. This picture on Pinterest was my jumping off point, but I threw in cheesy chickpeas to up the protein factor. Chicken would taste delicious on this salad too (as would avocado), but I was looking to keep it vegetarian with the garbanzos. In fact, subbing nutritional yeast instead of Parmesan would make this vegan, although I haven’t experimented with that yet.

Cheesy Chickpea Kale Salad with Corn and Nectarines

Cheesy Chickpea Kale Salad with Nectarines and Corn (inspired by eats well with others)

Serves 4

  • 1 bunch of kale
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 2 ears of corn
  • 2 tablespoons fresh basil
  • 3 large nectarines, thinly sliced
  • 1 recipe cheesy chickpeas (see recipe below)
  • 1 recipe honey mustard vinaigrette (see recipe below)

Method:

  1. Boil the corn until cooked (about 5-7 minutes), and then slice kernels off of the cob. My other favorite trick for cooking corn is to steam it in the husk by microwaving it (with the husk still on) for 5 minutes (for 2 ears). Once it cools, you can peel it and cut it as usual.
  2. Massage the kale with olive oil until it turns a dark green color and reduces by about half.
  3. To assemble, toss the kale with the nectarines, basil, corn, cheesy chickpeas, and honey mustard vinaigrette.

Cheesy Chickpea Kale Salad with Nectarines and Corn

Cheesy Chickpeas (inspired by Clean Eating)

  • 1 can garbanzo beans (also known as chickpeas), rinsed and drained
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • ¼ cup shredded Parmesan cheese

Method:

  1. Spread out chickpeas over several layers of paper towels to dry, for about 30 minutes.
  2. Preheat oven to 375. In a small mixing bowl, combine the olive oil and cheese until the oil is absorbed.
  3. Once the oil is absorbed, break up the cheese a bit with your fingers, then add in the garbanzo beans and mix until well combined.
  4. Evenly spread the chickpeas onto a greased baking sheet, and bake for 30 minutes.

Cheesy Chickpeas

Cheesy Chickpeas pictured prior to baking

Honey Mustard Vinaigrette

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons champagne vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 2 teaspoons whole grain mustard

Method:

  1. To make the honey mustard vinaigrette, pour the champagne vinegar, olive oil, honey, and mustard into a small mixing bowl and whisk until combined.

Cheesy Chickpea Kale Salad with Nectarines and Corn

Serves 4

Nutrition Per Serving: 330 calories, 14g protein, 11g fat (2g saturated), 49g carbohydrates (10g fiber, 13g sugar), 418mg sodium, 215% Vitamin A, 145% Vitamin C, 20% Calcium, 18% Iron

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Yes, Keep Eating Fruit

Yes, Keep Eating Fruit (@kellytoupsrd)

Fruit is bad because it has so much sugar, right?

Aren’t bananas fattening?

Shouldn’t you cut back on fruit if you’re trying to lose weight?

I get questions like this all the time. No seriously, I do. While it’s upsetting to think of how the media and food faddists have led well-meaning dieters astray, it’s actually pretty liberating when friends and clients realize just how easy good nutrition is. More fruits and veggies, less junk food. It’s that simple!

Think about it logically. America doesn’t have an obesity problem from eating too much fruit. It’s our ever-increasing portion sizes, penchant for sugary beverages and endless snacking that did us in.

Yes, fruit has sugar. But it also has loads of vitamins, minerals, water, and most importantly, fiber. The fiber in the fruit will slow its release into your bloodstream, so that you don’t get the spike and crash associated with other sugary foods (such as soda or candy).

However, do not confuse fruit with fruit juice. Juice lacks the fiber and some of the micronutrients of the whole fruit. While a cup of fresh fruit is a healthy, low-calorie snack, do not be fooled into thinking that juice is a low calorie or no calorie beverage. Many juices pack just as much sugar and calories per cup as soda. And without the fiber (and additional water in whole fruits) to trigger fullness cues in your stomach, it is much easier to overindulge in fruit juice than fruit. Additionally, the amount of juice you drink has a direct relationship with diabetes risk, but the amount of fruit you eat actually decreases the risk of diabetes.

Next time you find yourself unsure of what to eat, remember the sweet truth and fill up with fiber-rich fruits and vegetables.

- Kelly

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Seasons 52: Diet-Friendly Fine Dining

Seasons 52

Grilled Alaska Wild Copper River Salmon with summer corn risotto, sugar snap peas, and toybox tomatoes

Imagine enjoying an Oak-grilled rack of lamb with Yukon Gold mashed potatoes and a summer vegetable ratatouille, all for the same amount of calories as a medium Strawberry Surf Rider Smoothie from Jamba Juice. At Seasons 52, that’s precisely what you’ll get.

Nestled into a corner at Houston’s vibrant City Centre, this new restaurant redefines healthy dining. The seasonally influenced menu inspires the restaurant’s name. Entrees change about four times a year, and vegetable sides change weekly. However, the most impressive part of the menu is that every item is 475 calories or less.

Seasons 52

Honey & Herb Roasted Chicken, spring vegetables, Yukon Gold mashed potatoes, roasted chicken jus

If you’re picturing cardboard diet food and rubbery tofu, think again. Instead, the healthy balance at Seasons 52 is achieved by shunning the embarrassingly large portions that have come to be standard and letting fresh, seasonal vegetables do the talking. These meals are hearty, satisfying, and downright delicious.

The whole roasted Branzino, a European seabass, is standout summer special. This beautifully presented dish has a delicate texture and a sinfully savory flavor. Another memorable dish was the honey & herb roasted chicken. Chefs could have taken the easy way out by serving a dry slab of boneless, skinless chicken breast atop an uninspired salad. Instead, this chicken is moist, rich, and downright flavorful, and served with a tantalizing array of seasonal vegetables. Additionally, while the trend of desserts in shot glasses feels exhausted at other establishments, at Seasons 52, it somehow feels special, and fits right in to the perfectly-portioned atmosphere.

Seasons 52

 

Oak-Grilled Filet Mignon, cremini mushrooms, steamed leaf spinach, mashed potatoes, red wine sauce

Seasons 52 has over 30 locations across the country including Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, Atlanta, Georgia, and Phoenix, Arizona. It first arrived in Houston at Westheimer, and it’s popularity spurred this second location at the City Centre shortly after.

While the classy, dimly lit interior lacks in personality (there is not a chalkboard, Edison lightbulb, or tattooed waiter to be found), the understated elegance is the perfect setting for a fine dining establishment. Unlike Ruggle’s on the Green, another popular City Centre eatery that emphasizes seasonality, the atmosphere at Seasons 52 is much more upscale and carries a noticeably higher price point.

That being said, you get what you pay for. And at Seasons 52, that means delicious, quality meals that leave you feeling nourished, rather than nauseous.

- Kelly

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What is a degree in Gastronomy?

Gastronomy

Last month, I graduated with a Masters in Gastronomy from Boston University. This revelation is often followed by blank stares and questions about my future in intestinal medicine or the study of outer space. Close, but no cigar.

Gastronomy is the study of food, not just from a culinary perspective, but from anthropological, historical, scientific, and policy-based perspectives as well. Below are the courses I took to complete my degree. You can click on each course to read more about it. Also, check out the Gastronomy student blog to learn more about current students and alumni.

Required core classes for the Gastronomy program:

Food Policy concentration:

Electives:

Other classes that I wish I would have had a chance to take (had time permitted) are: Food Marketing, The Many Meanings of Meat, Certificate Program in the Culinary Arts, Urban Agriculture, Food Science, and Food Microbiology.

What does one do with a Gastronomy degree? Graduates of the program work as food writers, consultants for food and beverage companies, culinary instructors, food marketers, as well as for nonprofit organizations working to reform the food system. As for me? I’m using my culinary training and knowledge of the greater food system in order to achieve my long-term goal of making healthy foods both more accessible and more appealing.

- Kelly

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The Truth About Butter

butter

Image via BOJ

Leave it to science journalists to convince the public that butter and bacon are heart healthy foods. From the Wall Street Journal’s, Questionable Link Between Saturated Fat and Heart Disease, to Mark Bittman’s Butter is Back in the New York Times, several articles have been quick to sing the praises of artery-clogging saturated fat.

Their ammunition is a recent meta-analysis in the March issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine. This study is a review of previous studies that compares heart disease rates to fat intake. The authors found that when saturated fats are replaced with refined carbohydrates and added sugars, heart disease risk increases despite the low level of saturated fat. What this study failed to report is that when saturated fat is replaced with monounsaturated fat in the form of olive oil, nuts, or avocados, heart disease risk actually decreases.

Nowhere did the authors suggest that saturated fats are beneficial for health. So while butter may be dubbed the lesser of two evils (when compared to added sugars), the goal of healthful eating should be to find foods that are proven to actually nourish you and prevent disease. The gold standard of nutrition should not be to pick foods simply because they are “not as bad as” others. Additionally, the best way to assess nutrition and health is to look at the overall diet, rather than one nutrient at a time.

Was eating less butter and bacon the downfall of American health and nutrition? Definitely not. The real culprit, as the study points out, is the prevalence of sugar-laden processed foods. If you want to eat for health, choose a dietary pattern with decades of research behind it, such as the Mediterranean diet, that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, legumes, and healthy fats such as nuts and olive oil.

For more on the saturated fat debate, see these articles:

For some of my favorite heart-healthy recipes, see here:

Quinoa Salad with Dried Cranberries and Marcona Almonds

- Kelly

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Gastronomy Course Spotlight: Food History

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Food History is one of the four required core classes for the Gastronomy program. It has traditionally been taught as an online or blended course, but this semester, the class was held in a traditional, classroom-based setting. The course was taught by Historian Kyri Claflin (who looks remarkably like an older version of Isla Fisher). I had imagined that the course would be organized chronologically, focusing in on the major turning points in the history of food, but instead, the course was organized by themes (nature & technology, movement, and culture & cuisine).

The main assignment for the course was our class blog, which we were required to contribute to five times throughout the semester. However, don’t let the term “blog post” fool you. These were 1,000 word research papers, which just happened to be submitted via WordPress. We were also required to actively comment (and reply to comments) on each other’s posts. In grad school, there aren’t a lot of opportunities to read your classmates writing, so this was actually a really cool advantage of incorporating a blog.

The frequency of our research papers (“blog posts”) seemed burdensome at first (every other week for ten weeks), but it was such a relief not to have a 20-page paper waiting for me at the end of April (as is the case in most other Gastronomy classes). Additionally, this format allowed me to research a variety of topics that interested me (from the history of food preservation to the history of vegetarianism), rather than being stuck with just one topic.

Most of my other graduate classes have been anchored by student-facilitated discussion, but (whether due to the transition from online to classroom based, or the teaching style of the instructor) discussion was not as strong in this course. Nonetheless, there were other opportunities to learn. The most popular class, hands-down, was when Nawal Nasrallah, a scholar and food writer came and prepared historic Iraqi recipes for us. The food was delicious, the speaker was delightful, and the topic was interesting. But after two years in the program, it should come as no surprise that the best way to learn about a cuisine is by eating it!

- Kelly

 

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Beet Hummus

Healthy Beet Hummus

If this magenta-colored party dip can’t transform the beet haters out there, I don’t know what will.

Admittedly, beets are not my favorite food. I don’t dislike them, they are just kind of… meh. However, when I spotted this recipe on Pinterest, I knew I had to give it a try. Hot pink and vegetable-rich? My two favorite things!

I started with a recipe from A Cozy Kitchen, but I cut back the oil and made some other tweaks to make it Dietitian-approved. This dip is great for veggies and toasted pita, but would also work well spread inside sandwiches or wraps.

Healthy Beet Hummus

Beet Hummus

(Recipe adapted from A Cozy Kitchen)

Makes about 2 cups

Ingredients

  • 1 large beet (rinsed, and greens removed)
  • 1 (15-ounce) can garbanzo beans, drained
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
  • 3 tablespoons tahini paste
  • Juice from 1 lemon
  • ½ teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Fill a small baking dish (I used a loaf pan) with a shallow layer of water (about 1/3 cup water, or about ½ inch layer across the bottom of the dish).
  3. Place the beet in the baking dish, cover the dish with foil, and roast in the oven for 45 minutes, until the beet is tender when poked with a fork.
  4. Allow the beet to cool, then slice off the tops of the beet, peel it and chop it.
  5. Add the chopped beet, garbanzo beans, garlic, tahini paste, lemon juice, lemon zest, ground cumin, ground coriander, and olive oil to a powerful blender or food processor, and blend until smooth. (I actually used an immersion blender, but a food processor or Vitamix would be ideal.)
  6. Taste, and adjust spices as desired.

Healthy Beet Hummus

Nutrition (per 2 Tbsp serving): 54 calories, 3g fat (0g saturated), 5g carbs (1.5g fiber, 0.5g sugar), 1.5g protein, 78mg sodium

- Kelly

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