Monday Q&A: Cooperative Extension adviser promotes healthy food choices

jholland@modbee.comJune 16, 2013 

    alternate textJohn Holland
    Title: Staff writer
    Coverage areas: Agriculture, Turlock; local news editor on Sundays
    Bio: John Holland has been a reporter at The Bee for 12 years. He has a journalism degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and previously worked at the Union Democrat in Sonora and the Visalia Times-Delta.
    Recent stories written by John

Terri Spezzano encourages her two boys to eat vegetables by involving them in shopping and gardening.

Her job doesn't end there. She spreads the word about healthy eating in Stanislaus and Merced counties as an adviser with the University of California Cooperative Extension.

Spezzano talked with The Bee about the bounty coming off nearby farms this time of year — and about canned, dried and other options when local produce is not in season.

She is entering her sixth year as a nutrition, family and consumer science adviser, a job that followed a few career twists. She first planned to be a veterinarian, then switched to animal and range science and finally got a master's degree in maternal and child nutrition at the University of California at Davis.

Q: There seems to be increased interest on healthy eating these days. Why is that?

A: I hope the main reason people are focusing on eating healthier is because of the work being done to educate the public on obesity rates and lack of nutrients in convenience foods. First lady Michelle Obama has also brought this issue to the forefront in a huge way. She has really worked hard on all aspects of the movement, from gardens to school cafeterias and physical activity.

Q: Why is it important to get this message out?

A: Research shows that this generation is the first generation that will not outlive their parents. Here in Stanislaus County, we are seeing kids in preschool and grade school with Type 2 diabetes. Kids with hypertension and high blood pressure. All of this is due to poor diets and lack of physical activity.

Q: Are there simple steps we can take to eat better?

A: We all have busy lives. I totally get that. I have two boys and both my husband and I work full time. What I do that really helps is plan meals ahead of time. Every Sunday, I sit down with my kids and we go through the grocery store ads to find out what the specials are and plan our meals. We love the summer because it is so much easier to get fresh fruit and vegetables. We grow our own vegetables and go to the farmers' market on Saturday and that helps us plan meals also.

Q: What can parents do to get their kids on board?

A: The biggest myth around healthy eating is that kids don't like it. Remember, as parents we are role models. So first we need to eat healthier if we want our kids to eat healthier. We also need to be flexible. I know parents are reading this and getting irritated by my answer. So let me explain. … My son hates fresh tomatoes and bananas. Notice I said fresh. He will eat tomato sauce and dried bananas. So he will still eat them, just in a different form, and that is fine. What he doesn't like is the texture of the food. Another very important piece to getting your kids to eat their fruits and vegetables is let them pick out and cook the food. I rarely pick out the vegetables we eat and my cart is always full of vegetables.

Q: How do farm-to-school programs and campus gardens help?

A: Farm-to-school and school gardens work on many different levels. Kids see different vegetables and fruit and get to try it several times during the school year. This makes the produce familiar and not "scary," so they are more likely to try it. We also use the positive peer pressure from all of their friends who are trying the new food. This is something you may not have access to at home. They learn everything about the produce. They can grow it. They learn about the history of it and the history of the farmers in our area who grow it. This gives the students a sense of their community and pride in our heritage. The Central Valley often gets a bad rap. Our agriculture is something we can and should be very proud of. We feed the world! Our farmers and agricultural workers are heroes! No one would have food in their refrigerator if they did not produce it.

Q: What do the new MyPlate guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture mean?

A: Basically, MyPlate is MyPyramid made easy. MyPyramid isn't gone; we still teach it. It is just hard to determine serving sizes on it. MyPlate was developed to help with that. My first advice when explaining MyPlate is the size of the plate should be 9 inches, or if you want to cut your portions, eat off a salad plate. You will notice that half of the plate is fruit and vegetables, mostly vegetables. On the other side we have grains and protein. Note the size of the protein in relation to the other groups. The serving size for protein is 3 ounces (the size of a deck of cards). Dairy is represented by milk next to the plate. The most important thing to remember is to get seven servings of vegetables and fruit a day. This is not as hard to do as you may think. Let's try it. I want you to cup your hand and fill it with your favorite vegetable or fruit. Now eat. You just ate one serving.

Q: If you can't get fresh fruits and vegetables, are canned, dried and frozen OK?

A: Yes! It doesn't matter how your fruit or vegetables come as long as you are eating them. Of course, you want to check the label to make sure there is no added sugar or salt. One thing that I learned recently was the amount of sugar added to Craisins. Basically, the cranberries are juiced and rehydrated with sugar water. This is why they are so sweet. A better choice is the plain old raisin. Still yummy and no added sugar.

Q: Are there myths about diet that need to be dispelled?

A: I am sorry to say probably most of them. There is no magic bullet. I wish there was. We have to eat less and move more. I'm in the same boat as everyone else and I know what to do. I'll be taking my dog for a walk after (writing) this. The hardest part is getting exercise into your everyday routine.

Q: Is an occasional treat OK if you generally eat well?

A: Yes, of course. Research shows that if you do not allow for the occasional treat — or as we like to call it, "sometimes foods" — we and our kids are more likely to binge eat on them later. You can also make better choices that are just as good. For instance, I keep tubes of yogurt in my freezer that my kids can grab anytime as a treat. We also make our own Popsicles out of leftover smoothie or after we make juice.

Q: How long will it take to turn the tide on obesity?

A: Good question. I wish I had a good answer. We are seeing the rates level off. Hopefully, we will start to see the levels start to come back down in this decade.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to mention?

A: Being healthy is well worth your time. It can also be a lot of fun for your family. Now that my kids are getting bigger, we have a lot of fun planning everything together, from meals, going out for hikes and bike rides to planning and planting our garden. It is much easier when it is done as a family.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at or (209) 578-2385.

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