Fighting the Good Food Fight


By Jessica Griffin
On August 24, 2014

Clemson cucumbersAs processed foods loaded with fat, sugars and salt, become increasingly cheap and convenient for Americans, the fight to maintain health and nutrition becomes more and more relevant. In the spirit of spreading awareness for the importance of making good choices while purchasing food, a nutritional outreach program, one of many across Connecticut, is occurring through UConn’s College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources (CAHNR) and UConn Extension.

These outreach programs take place at Connecticut farmers’ markets in east Bridgeport and Danbury. The Farmers’ Market in Bridgeport is run in collaboration with Wholesome Wave, a national organization based in Bridgeport dedicated to increasing affordability and availability of fresh foods to Americans.

The Danbury Farmers’ Market is run by the Danbury Farmers’ Market Community Collaborative (DFMCC) “Better Health Through Better Food” initiative.

Heather Peracchio, a dietitian and UConn Masters in Allied Health Sciences ’08 alumna, has been working as an educator at farmers’ markets since 2006. At the farmers’ market, she gives out healthy recipes, answers questions and presents to the public about making the best nutritional choices.

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Eat Seasonally: Enjoy Nature’s “Fast Food”

628x471Originally Posted by Danbury News Times

Heather Peracchio of UConn Extension is a registered dietitian who lives in Brookfield. But she’s happy to travel if there’s a chance to spread the word about healthy eating.

This past Monday she gave two nutrition/cooking lessons, one in Bridgeport and one in Norwalk. Among her messages — the importance of eating seasonally.

“Eating seasonally is eating fresh produce found locally,” she said. “An example would be eating strawberries in June and blueberries in July.”

Peracchio said there are numerous benefits to eating seasonally. One is that you get to enjoy fruits and vegetables at their peak, when they offer the highest nutritional content. This helps support our bodies natural cleansing and healing abilities.

“And there’s an infinite variety, so there’s always something new to try,” she said.

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4-H FANs IM Success Stories

4-H FANs logoConnecticut Fitness and Nutrition Clubs In Motion (CT FANs IM), is a 4-H Afterschool program designed to reduce obesity rates in children ages 9 to 14, through sustainable interventions surrounding food and fitness. The program is a collaboration between the UConn Extension, and the Department of Kinesiology. CT FANs IM, was modeled after the original 4-H FANs Fitness and Nutrition Clubs, a USDA Children, Youth and Families at Risk (CYFAR) Program. Here are some of their recent success stories.


Teen Mentor Gains Real World Experience


NajeiaNajeia served as a 4-H FANs teen mentor during the summer of 2010 and 2011. She is currently a senior at Tufts University, majoring in community health and American studies, with a minor in sociology.


“I really enjoyed working with the youth in the 4-H FANs program,” Najeia says. “I applied for the program through Youth@Work, and I was thankful to be matched with a health promotion program. It was helpful to me, as it provided a real world experience, and allowed me to take a leadership role while learning many new skills.”


Originally, Najeia was interested in becoming a physician, but through her studies, she has focused on public health. Upon graduation, she plans to work in the field for a few years before pursuing a Master’s degree in public health. She hopes to become a director in a community health organization, where she plans to focus on promoting health equity; in particular, breaking down social barriers that are targeted at marginalized communities.


“I’d like to work with kids in some capacity when I’m in the field,” Najeia says. “As a public health professional, I would like to initiate programs for youth and follow the 4-H FANs model, where youth disseminate health promotion information within the community.”


Najeia is quick to point out that while being a 4-H FANs teen mentor was a good experience, she also had a lot of fun. “I really enjoyed my time there. Particularly when we introduced dance to the kids as a way to exercise. They loved it. Especially the cha cha slide!”


4-H FANs IM Summer Garden


FANs gardenGrowing vegetables was a big hit with the students participating in the 4-H FANs IM Summer Program at Roger Sherman School. Amy Sandoval, UConn Extension Public Service Specialist notes, “Youth were so excited when they noticed veggies growing. They would say, ‘Oh, my babies, they are growing!'”


Teen Mentor Attends UConn


Fontaine joined the New Haven 4-H FANs program during the summer leading into her junior year of high school. She continued working as a teen facilitator throughout her junior and senior year.


“I love working with kids,” Fontaine says. “Our mission was to make students aware of what they were eating, and encourage them to get moving and become more physically fit. The program also made me more conscious of how I was eating. I felt that as a role model, I had to lead by example.”


“Just to hear a child say, ‘I ate an apple today or I played outside,’ made me realize that my job meant something. It gave me a sense of fulfillment that I was doing something to benefit someone else.”


Fontaine grew up in the New Haven area, and was surprised to discover that 4-H programs existed in urban areas. As a teen facilitator with the 4-H FANs program, Fontaine attended the 4-H conference in Washington, D.C., a trip that Fontaine says gave her an opportunity to travel from home, and experience a completely different environment.


Currently, Fontaine is a student at UConn majoring in political science. She hopes one day to become an attorney. “I know I have a long way to go, but in due time, I will get there.”

Barnum School 4-H Garden

Since 1968, Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) has been funded by he United States Department of Agriculture and is an integral part of the UConn Extension. Currently, it is one of the federal government’s longest running educational outreach programs targeted to low-income families. Specially trained EFNEP Nutrition Assistants, who know their communities well, work with program families in their homes or in small community groups to offer knowledge and skills to help people control and manage their food and nutrition practices for better health and quality of life. In combination with food assistance programs such and WIC or the USDA Food Stamp Program, EFNEP can make a difference in improving food choices and health.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), through the Food Stamp Act of 1977, as amended, provides for the operation of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in the State of Connecticut. The State of Connecticut Department of Social Services (DSS) has been designated by the USDA to administer the State’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education(SNAP-Ed) activities and DSS in turn has contracted with UConn and the CT Department of Public Health to design and implement SNAP-Ed projects. Under this contract, the USDA has authorized the University of Connecticut’s Department of Allied Health Sciences to administer, design, develop implement and evaluate a SNAP-Ed plan based on the following objectives.

Watch the video on the Barnum School 4-H Garden here.

The Health Toll of Immigration

By SABRINA TAVERNISE —  The New York Times —  May 18, 2013
J. Michael Short for The New York Times
A growing body of mortality research on immigrants has shown that the longer they live in this country, the worse their rates of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. And while their American-born children may have more money, they tend to live shorter lives than the parents.

The pattern goes against any notion that moving to America improves every aspect of life. It also demonstrates that at least in terms of health, worries about assimilation for the country’s 11 million illegal immigrants are mistaken. In fact, it is happening all too quickly.

“There’s something about life in the United States that is not conducive to good health across generations,” said Robert A. Hummer, a social demographer at the University of Texas at Austin.

For Hispanics, now the nation’s largest immigrant group, the foreign-born live about three years longer than their American-born counterparts, several studies have found.

Why does life in the United States – despite its sophisticated health care system and high per capita wages – lead to worse health? New research is showing that the immigrant advantage wears off with the adoption of American behaviors – smoking, drinking, high-calorie diets and sedentary lifestyles.

Here in Brownsville, a worn border city studded with fast-food restaurants, immigrants say that happens slowly, almost imperceptibly. In America, foods like ham and bread that are not supposed to be sweet are. And children lose their taste for traditional Mexican foods like cactus and beans.

For the recently arrived, the quantity and accessibility of food speaks to the boundless promise of the United States. Esther Angeles remembers being amazed at the size of hamburgers – as big as dinner plates – when she first came to the United States from Mexico 15 years ago.

“I thought, this is really a country of opportunity,” she said. “Look at the size of the food!”

Fast-food fare not only tasted good, but was also a sign of success, a family treat that new earnings put in reach.

“The crispiness was delicious,” said Juan Muniz, 62, recalling his first visit to Church’s Chicken with his family in the late 1970s. “I was proud and excited to eat out. I’d tell them: ‘Let’s go eat. We can afford it now.’ ”

For others, supersize deals appealed.

“You work so hard, you want to use your money in a smart way,” said Aris Ramirez, a community health worker in Brownsville, explaining the thinking. “So when they hear ‘twice the fries for an extra 49 cents,’ people think, ‘That’s economical.’ “

Growing Nutrient-Dense Vegetables

Working to Curb Malnutrition From the Ground Up
Field Day 2011

Empty calories. Depleted soil. Overproduction. By now, most Americans have heard reports that even as we’re eating more, we’re taking in fewer nutrients. Today’s ubiquitous fast foods and processed meals play a large part in the changing quality of our diets. But research also suggests that the mineral content of plant-based foods—fruits, vegetables, and grains—has been steadily diminishing since the 1950s.

What’s behind the decline? Some say commercial farming methods that target higher yields are stripping the soil of minerals, leaving less for new plants to absorb. Other theories point to modern hybrid species that have been developed for higher yields, easier handling, better appearance, and marketability at the expense of nutritional content.

With deficiencies in essential minerals linked to osteoporosis, anemia, higher infection rates, and a host of other ills, figuring out how to increase the nutrient density of crops is on the minds of farmers, consumers, scientists, and public health departments alike. That’s where Stockbridge School of Agriculture Professor Allen Barker comes in.

Barker and his team set out to study the nutrient content of a selection of fruits and vegetables to see how new cultivars compare to old-fashioned strains and how both are affected by various fertilizers. In the first two years of the project, they’ve grown and harvested 24 varieties of tomato, 35 types of cabbage, and 18 different lettuces in soil enriched with either chemical fertilizer, organic fertilizer, or compost. The results offer more than a few surprises.

“For lettuce, cabbage, and tomato, essentially no differences occur in nutrient accumulation between modern hybrids and heritage varieties,” reports Barker. “On average, they have essentially the same composition.” Nor did the team note a large disparagement in average nutrient content between phenotypes – that is, between red cabbages and green cabbages, or between romaine lettuce and iceberg lettuce.

However, there proved to be an enormous difference among specific varieties within those phenotypes. According to Barker, “Varieties of cabbage, lettuce, and tomato differed widely, with some varieties having twice the nutrient content of others in all species.” In other words, he explains, “We can’t say that romaine is better for you than iceberg, or that red cabbage is better for you than green cabbage, but we can say which varieties of romaine or red cabbage are best.”

This is good news for farmers, who are eager to hear Barker’s recommendations so they can plant and market healthier foods. It’s good for breeders, who are interested in using the information to develop higher-nutrient plants through genetic improvement. And of course, it’s good for the consumers who take those fruits and vegetables home. In fact, one of the project’s main goals is to build public awareness of the nutrient content in different types of produce, thus opening new marketing opportunities for farmers while helping to combat malnutrition.

But choosing the most nutritious tomato is only part of the picture. Much of the project’s value lies in helping farmers determine not just what to plant, but how.

“Soil fertility problems associated with nutrient depletion by crop production are worldwide,” says Barker. Since the 1960s, he explains, fruit, vegetable, and grain yields have increased markedly, resulting in a dilution of the minerals available in the soil and, it follows, in the crops themselves. “There’s concern that we’re mining the soil, taking out more nutrients than we put back in,” he explains. “For nutrient-sufficient foods to be sustainable, elemental depletion of soils must be compensated for by return of nutrients through fertilization.” That’s been hindered, says Barker, by the cost of fertilizers and by recent criticisms of over-fertilization.

To find the most effective way to replenish the soil, Barker and his team used three regimes to grow their specimens: organic fertilizer, conventional chemical fertilizer, and compost. Each of the three media was fundamentally equal in nutrient content, that is to say, richly fertilized. “We fed them well,” says Barker.

In analyzing the harvest, Barker found that the fruits and vegetables grown using quick-releasing chemical fertilizer were equally nutrient-dense to those grown with slower-acting organic fertilizer. Trailing behind was compost, which is effective in the long term, says Barker, but may require several years to build up the soil. The experiment suggests that what’s critical in growing mineral-rich produce is not the type of fertilizer used, but rather the quality and quantity of nutrients provided.

Barker hopes to take these results further in several directions. One is to discover whether the mineral content of nutrient-dense varieties can be boosted even more with vigorous fertilization. He’d like to see if a plant’s nutrient components can be enhanced in soil as they have been when grow hydroponically. And he’s eager to correlate his results with those of scientists who are researching other plant components, such as vitamin content.

“There are quite a few people looking at other constituents, but we’re kind of unique,” says Barker. “I don’t know of anyone who’s studying the specific factor that we are with as much intensity.”

SNAP-Ed Program

healthy foodSusan Beeman, RD of the SNAP-Ed Healthy Aging Program, and Erica Benvenuti RD of the SNAP-Ed (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education) /EFNEP (Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program), housed in the Norwich Extension Office participated in the holiday distributions sponsored by Groton Health & Human Services in southeastern Connecticut. They provided nutrition information and cooking demonstrations at two different events in November and December reaching over four hundred low-income families at Thanksgiving and five hundred at Christmas.

Informational materials on how to thaw, cook, stuff and store a turkey were distributed in English & Spanish and recipes were provided. Tastings of turkey chili and pumpkin bread were distributed in November and in December chicken quesadillas, and gingerbread were sampled.

Saturday Morning Breakfast Club

By Edith Valiquette

Every Saturday morning in Bridgeport, 4-H families gather for the Saturday Morning Breakfast Club. During this time, families eat together, have group discussions, and have fun. 4-H staff in Fairfield County created this program as part of its mentoring initiative because it saw the need to strengthen family bonds.

The mentoring program has three components:  mentoring, family night, and the 4-H club.  Youth are involved in all three activities.  Seventy-five youth total are involved in the program and the Extension Office partners with the Regional Youth Substance Abuse Project.

Bfast club

Parents face increasing challenges in providing for their children as wages continue to decline. Some work second jobs while others have enrolled in continuing education courses. When several parents had to miss Family Night Out events for these commitments, we looked for alternative ways parents could participate in the program. And the breakfast club has worked well.  The breakfast club has also been a great way to include fathers in the program.

Nearly 20 adults and youth attend this Saturday morning program. The club’s goal is to strengthen the parent-child relationship through group discussion, one-on-one interaction between parent and child, and fun, educational activities. 4-H staff provides a free, full course breakfast made possible by community donations to set the foundation for a better day by nourishing the body.

Each week focuses on a different topic.  Some past examples include:  creating a collage of their family, family values, trust, communication and working together.  Saturday Morning Breakfast Club also focuses on having fun with your family.

bfast club2

During the discussion, a book is passed around that begins with one poetic line. Everyone must write a line of their own that builds upon the line before theirs. At the end of every session, the lines are read aloud and the result is a beautiful poem that sounds as if it were written by one person. The purpose of this activity is to show the inherent and positive connection that exists between people’s thoughts.

The Saturday Morning Breakfast Club has proved to be a valuable way to enhance the mentoring program and increase the family strengthening opportunities in Bridgeport.

Connecticut FoodCorps

One experience at a time, children in Connecticut are learning where their food comes from, how to grow their own, and how to prepare local fresh produce to nourish themselves.

Beginning last August, FoodCorps service members have been placed in five communities across the state for a year of service. Their efforts focus on connecting with parents, school administrators, teachers, food service staff, and community members, to create healthier food environments for children.

FoodCorps service members
FoodCorps is a new national service program in its second year, it is similar to Teach for America or Peace Corps. The program works with state organizations to host young leaders, known as service members, in low-resource communities to help tackle the childhood obesity epidemic. Through hands-on nutrition education, garden program building and support, and farm-to-school procurement assistance for cafeterias, the goal is to change the food systems children are a part of, from the individual to the institutional level.

The five service members are in: Norwich, New Britain, New Haven, Bridgeport, and Windham.  They have been developing new programs, like the Food Day event at Barnum Elementary in Bridgeport.  Service members are also expanding the reach of existing programming, they coordinated “Fuel Up to Play 60” trainings in Norwich, Windham, and Bridgeport schools.  FoodCorps is also acting as an extra pair of boots on the ground for service site organization initiatives, for instance helping Common Ground develop the School Garden Resource Center in New Haven and Bridgeport.

Individuals come to this year of service with a wealth of experience, inspiration, and a desire to contribute something positive to the world. As Liz, the service member in Norwich explains, “I now know that there are people struggling every day to put food on my table, sometimes at the expense of putting food on their own. I know that there is an epidemic of obesity in America, posing serious health risks to children. I have learned that food has the power to bring people together, but also to tear communities apart. I want to be a part of the food movement that encourages healthy food environments, healthy kids, and healthy communities, even if that requires a lot of time, hard work, and personal change”

The FoodCorps program is run out of the Tolland County Extension Center in Vernon by Jiff Martin, Sustainable Food Systems Educator.   FoodCorps co-captains are:  Dawn Crayco, Deputy Director of End Hunger CT!; Christiana Jones of Jones Family Farm, and Dana Stevens, Connecticut FoodCorps Fellow. The FoodCorps Connecticut program hopes to expand to additional sites across the state in 2014.

If you would like more information about the program, you can like “FoodCorps Connecticut” on facebook, or email Jiff at, or Dana at For those interested in becoming a FoodCorps Service Member, applications for next year can be submitted from January 15th through March 24th. Please visit for more information.

Metabolic Family Day

UConn Extension Educator Sherry Gray coordinated a state-wide Metabolic Family day at Lyman Orchards on October 14, 2012.  This event invited families of patients with metabolic disorders from the Genetics clinics at UConn Health Center and Yale New Haven hospital.  The event included representatives from several metabolic companies including Nutricia NA, Applied Nutrition and Biomarin Pharmaceuticals. Patients  had a chance to try products from these companies as well as participate in fun events such as the Corn maze, Horse drawn hay rides, a food drawing,  and fruit and pumpkin picking.  The event had sponsorship from Biomarin, Applied Nutrition and Nutricia.  The Hartford County Extension Council also provided support for this event. 116 people attended the event from all over the state. Patients who attended have diagnoses such as Phenylketonuria, Maple Syrup Urine Disease, Fatty Acid Oxidation disorders, Methylmalonic Acidemia, Galactosemia,  and Urea cycle disorders.


Inherited metabolic disorders are genetic conditions that result in metabolism problems.  Most people with inherited metabolic disorders have a specific gene that results in an enzyme deficiency.  There are hundreds of different metabolic disorders, and their symptoms, treatments and prognosis vary widely. For many, early treatment in infancy and throughout life is necessary to avoid devastating disability or death. Although individually rare, collectively metabolic disorders may affect about 1 in 1,000 to 2,500 newborns.  In Connecticut, there are hundreds of individuals with metabolic disorders spread out in communities all over the state.

This event provided a chance for many families of children with metabolic disorders or adults with metabolic disorders to meet with each other and provide social support.  They are generally the only one in their community with the disorder so social isolation can be a problem.  Events such as this provide a positive forum for connection and support. Patients treated at both the UConn Health Center and Yale New Haven hospital’s Metabolic Centers (the only two treatment centers in the State) were invited to the event.

mom and daughter

Sherry Gray has worked with the Division of Human Genetics for over 20 years through a unique linkage between Cooperative Extension and UConn Health Center, paid for by a grant with the Connecticut State Newborn Screening Program.  She provides clinical counseling to over 140 patients with metabolic disorders, many who require specific dietary therapies.  During this time she has worked on many metabolic patient outreach events such as Metabolic Family weekends held at Incarnation Center in Ivoryton, CT,  Rock Cats games at New Britain Stadium, day events at the Beardsley Zoo, Lake Compounce,  and many Low Protein Cooking schools held at St. Joseph College.  All of these events have provided children and adults with metabolic conditions with social support and education.

These events have also been attended by many UConn Nutritional Sciences and Allied Health students who have come to events and gotten course credit and/or community service exposure to a unique population. Patients are also enrolling at UConn for undergraduate or graduate study, which shows the tremendous gains in medical care and treatment which allows these individuals to live longer and more successful lives.