Posts by:

Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl

Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl

Research Assistant

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

A Former Teacher’s Take on The New Dietary Guidelines for America

Every five years, the United States Departments of Human Health Services and Agriculture jointly release the Dietary Guidelines for America in the hopes of encouraging every American to eat a healthy diet, however, chances are the average person will never set eyes on the report. As a former teacher and observer of arguably the most unhealthy generation in American history, I look at this document and immediately think, “How can I ensure that the crucial messages buried in this bureaucratic document will be delivered to the children and parents who need to hear it?” While the objective is to provide Americans with a guide to a healthy eating pattern, the recently released 2010 Dietary Guidelines places a heavy emphasis on the fact that a “guide” is no longer enough and lays out a “Call to Action” to help Americans make healthier choices. Much of that “Call to Action” should be aimed at our nation’s schools where the foundations of healthy eating and living are often built.

As a high school teacher of a low-income urban school in Richmond, California, I witnessed the front lines of the childhood obesity epidemic as it manifested itself in real time. I also observed the interactions between the food environment (the elements of our surroundings that influence what we eat) and my students’ choices. Often that food environment was exemplified by a lack of access to healthy affordable food, the ubiquity of corner stores and fast food locations and a school food environment filled with competitive foods and pre-prepared food service meals.

What I saw among the majority of my students was a lack of any active engagement with the food system that was supplying their daily calories. Nutrition was no longer taught at the school, there was no school garden, there were no health professionals (nurses) other than psychologists to help with counsel students regarding family and violence issues. Other than the few immigrant families that had home gardens to supplement their food purchases, students were either handed food or food was purchased with little thought about their consumption in a meaningful way.

The new Dietary Guidelines recognize this fact. Chapter 6, titled, “Helping Americans make healthy choices,” opens by stating, “Today, Americans must make these choices within the context of an environment that promotes overconsumption of calories and discourages physical activity. In fact, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines’ Call to Action includes three guiding principles, all of which are absolutely essential for our schools and communities to develop over the next decade. They are:

1. Ensure that all Americans have access to nutritious foods and opportunities for physical activity

2. Facilitate individual behavior change through environmental strategies

3. Set the stage for lifelong healthy eating, physical activity and weight management behaviors.

Calories added by the way we prepare food.

Calories added by the way we prepare food.Set the stage for lifelong healthy eating, physical activity and weight management behaviors.

Being a teacher, I immediately look at these principles and the way they apply to our school environment. What the Dietary Guidelines are telling us (and they actually state it) is that our schools need to be empowering our students and families with “improved nutritional literacy, gardening, and cooking skills to heighten enjoyment of preparing and consuming healthy foods.”

The question is why aren’t we teaching our kids how to cook? Why aren’t we engaging our students with food production and while it’s happening, talking about the nutritional benefits of healthy food. Look at Figure 5-2. Why aren’t students analyzing food nutrition labels and charts like these and talking about why our processed foods have so much added fat, sugar and salt. Then they could discuss common sense purchasing decisions that can be made in order to be healthy. But those duties have been relegated to whom? Parents? Advertisers? Providence? New research is telling us that the influence that parents have on their children’s eating habits is weak, pointing to the complex social and physical environment and our children’s interactions with it. Institutions, like our schools need to stop being a passive participant or even a negative influence on our children’s eating habits and start being a positive influence, potentially strengthening the influence of parents again. I view these basic skills as an investment in future health for families and our nation. (To view a school-cooking project in Baltimore, click here and in New York City click here)

Most initial reporting on the new Dietary Guidelines has been positive; even the experts are surprised at the way the administration has put getting control of the obesity epidemic on the front burner. In a recent Washington Post article, Marion Nestle, the distinguished professor of Nutrition at NYU states, “I never would have believed they could pull this off…The new guidelines recognize that obesity is the number one public health nutrition problem in America and actually give good advice about what to do about it: eat less and eat better. For the first time, the guidelines make it clear that eating less is a priority.”


Just looking at the differences in the table of contents from the 2005 guidelines to the 2010 guidelines you can see a significant shift. In 2005, one third of the chapters related to specific nutrients (fats, carbohydrates, sodium, potassium) while in 2010, a third of the chapters are about developing healthy eating patterns and helping Americans make better choices. Just from that first glance a reader gets the sense that the 2010 document is much more accessible for the average American, with real common sense advice about how and what to consume, in place of confusing statements using nutritional jargon. Now, this isn’t to say that the document does not cover in depth the scientific and nutritional backing of their guidelines nor that the nutritional jargon is gone, but the document appears more approachable. In addition, for the first time the general message is first and foremost to eat less. In the very first sentence of the executive summary the document states, “eating and physical activity patterns that are focused on consuming fewer calories, making informed food choices, and being physically active can help people attain and maintain a healthy weight…”


Not many Americans end up reading the Dietary Guidelines, but they are important for shaping many of the food programs that our government delivers. And in the sense that our government must know what needs to be done before they can actually help individuals accomplish these changes, this is a step in the right direction.


-Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl

Shovel Ready: Cuban Urban Agriculture as Job Creator

CLF’s Sr. Research Program Coordinators Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl and Sarah Rodman are visiting Cuba as part of a Natural Environmental Ecological Management delegation. Members of the group will see first hand large-scale Cuban infrastructure developed to support its 18-year-old, world-renowned sustainable agricultural system in both the rural and urban sectors.

I’ve just returned from eight days in Cuba studying their sustainable agricultural system — especially their urban agriculture sector — and I have several key take-aways.

cubagraphicOne of the biggest insights was the untapped potential of urban agriculture as a creator of good jobs. The Cuban system was reported to have provided over 300,000 employment opportunities and significant community development. (Koont, S. 2009) In a country of 12 million people, that means 2.5% of the Cuban population is employed in urban agriculture and its related industries.

Now, for many reasons, you cannot and should not compare Cuba to the United States with regard to agriculture. The two nations have different economic and political systems, cultures, climate and much more, but that does not mean that Cuban urban agriculture cannot provide lessons to us here in the U.S. I have long been interested in urban agriculture – not only as a way to provide healthy, local produce, but as a community development and youth development tool and, yes, a job creator. This is the mindset I had when I met Miguel Salcines and his Vivero

Kids playing at Vivero Organiponico

Kids playing at Vivero Organiponico


Vivero Organiponico is a 10-hectare (24-acre) urban farm within Alamar, a neighborhood of Havana. It is surrounded by apartments, houses, parks and the normal activities of a Havana neighborhood. The farm produces 12 to 15 crops for market, from eggplant to tomatoes, to lettuce, cabbage and onions. It sends produce to market 365 days a year. The farm grows intensively, turning over beds at a blistering rate, sometimes getting eleven cycles of greens out of a bed in a single year. It uses no chemical pesticides and no artificial fertilizers, but can draw fertility from its cattle and its large vermicomposting and mycorrhizae systems.

This organiponico is called a UBPC (basic unit of cooperative production) which is a sector of Cuban agriculture where farms are run on a cooperative basis, managed independently by individuals not employed by the Cuban government. The farms’ managers pay salaries and taxes, make profits and set prices. While in certain situations UBPC’s have levels of production that they must meet for the state (often sold to the state below the cost of production), even in those situations they can sell much of their surplus produce into local farmers markets and keep the profit for their cooperatives. Read More >

Cuban Pesos: A Farmer’s Market Experience

CLF’s Sr. Research Program Coordinators Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl and Sarah Rodman are visiting Cuba as part of a Natural Environmental Ecological Management delegation. Members of the group will see first hand large-scale Cuban infrastructure developed to support its 18-year-old, world-renowned sustainable agricultural system in both the rural and urban sectors.

One highly anticipated activity on our trip to Cuba was a trip to the 19 and B farmers’ market in Habana.  We had read that the farmers’ markets were a great example of the “opening” of the Cuban economic system, a true market of supply and demand where the economic incentives of profit drive increased efficiencies and productivity of the newly privatized agricultural cooperatives in Cuba.  The large state farms of the last 50 years were decentralized during the 1990’s and 2000’s and now, while many farms still have production quotas that they must fulfill for the state, any surplus production can be sold in these farmers’ markets.  For the last country in the world with a ration card, “la libreta,” these markets may offer a glimpse into the future of how food will be distributed in Cuba.

cubagraphicWe met the manager of the market, Miguel Angel, who explained how his market worked.  Whereas, at a local farmers’ market in the United States, a consumer is often meeting the farmer themselves at the market who can explain their growing techniques and establish that important relationship that attracts so many to the experience; in the Cuban market, the sellers are in fact middle-men who purchase produce directly from the farmers a few times a week in large quantities and then sell to the consumer everyday.

fm-cuba1In this market, the sellers set a contract price with the market before the opening every single day.  The price is not controlled by the state or the market, the individual sellers set the price.  Obviously, there is some sort of profit margin set into place between the purchase from the farmers and the selling to the consumers.  In addition, the sellers pay a 10% tax on their total sales at the end of the day.  The market accepts produce from all kinds of farms imaginable, from urban organiponicos to various cooperatives to individual private farmers from the countryside.  Anyone can bring produce to market and there seems to be no fee for acquiring space at the market. Read More >

Greetings from Cuba!

CLF’s Sr. Research Program Coordinators Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl and Sarah Rodman are visiting Cuba as part of a Natural Environmental Ecological Management delegation. Members of the group will see first hand large-scale Cuban infrastructure developed to support its 18-year-old, world-renowned sustainable agricultural system in both the rural and urban sectors.

This is the first of a few blog posts from the island of Cuba, where we are lucky enough to be studying the world recognized, sustainable model of Cuban agriculture.  Before I begin reporting on some of what we have been exposed to so far, I think readers should have a short background on how the sustainable agriculture system developed in Cuba.

cubagraphicWith the collapse of the communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the Soviet Union in 1990, Cuba lost 80 percent of its export and import market practically overnight. Cuba had a heavily industrialized, export-oriented agriculture system, dependent on petroleum inputs related to fertilizer, pesticides and fuel.  During the three decades from the Cuban revolution in 1959 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, Cuba averaged 1.3 million tons of chemical fertilizers, $80 million dollars worth of pesticides and 600,000 tons of feed concentrates.

Cuba exported large quantities of sugar to the Soviet Union based on very favorable trading terms, allowing Cuba not only to receive enough oil for its domestic purposes, but as a revenue stream selling surplus oil on the open market.  Even though Cuba was very productive as an agricultural system, it was heavily dependent on food imports, which accounted for 57 percent of the calories of the Cuban people before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, from the 1990’s to the mid 2000’s was interestingly called the “special period in peace time” when caloric availability in the country dropped significantly, along with the weights and the health of the Cuban people.

With no subsidies from the Soviet Union, and a serious lack of resources in the form of oil, fertilizers and pesticides, Cuba began developing a low-input, high yield, semi-organic agriculture system that has taken root throughout the country, with impressive production coming from urban centers.  Reports show over 50 percent of Havana’s fruits and vegetables, for example, are grown within Havana city limits. Urban farmers in Cuba alone provide nearly enough produce to meet the 300 grams of vegetables daily

Apartments overlooking an organiponico

Apartments overlooking an organiponico

that are recommended by the UN FAO. Cuba’s agriculture system is a source of pride with much information being disseminated from the Cuban government about the harmfulness of chemicals in agriculture and the healthfulness of Cuban food.   In addition to healthy foods, the system has provided over 300,000 new employment opportunities and significant community development. Read More >

Are you learning your food habits at home? Doesn’t look like it.

When I was a teacher, a common gripe among the staff was that the parent’s “weren’t doing their job” at home and how were “we,” the teachers supposed to make up for students whose parents didn’t read to them or encourage them to do their homework. This ongoing blame game ranged from discussions of reading ability, to discipline, to food. We often think that the home is where habits for a healthy life, or a disciplined student, or a physically fit individual begin and end. A new study from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health pokes a hole in our teacher’s lounge argument, showing that the relationship between dietary intake of parents and their children is weak, grows weaker with age and is growing weaker over time.

The study looked at parent-child dietary studies from different countries, including the U.S. over the past 30 years and found that across different countries, with similar and different methods, the relationship was weak. What does this mean? Does it mean that parents have no influence over what their children eat, and the type of eaters they become as they grow up? No. Individuals have a complex relationship with food and children are no different. Parents are a part of the relationship, but this study shows they are only a small part of what determines what and how we eat. It also shows that this relationship is becoming less strong as our society progresses. The weakening relationship could exist for many reasons, including: the growing independence of children, changing parenting styles, changes in our food system, increases in the amount of working mothers or changes in our home and social environments. An anecdotal article about award winning chefs and their kids from the Baltimore Sun recently, would attest to parent’s lack of influence. In the article, even James Beard award winning Chefs lunchbox concoctions can’t compete with lunchables. Read More >

Looking at Food System Issues through a ‘Food Justice Lens’

I first came upon the term “food justice” from an organization in Oakland called People’s Grocery led by Brahm Ahmadi and others who were fighting against an unjust food system in the “food desert” of West Oakland. At the time, it was an area that left residents with liquor stores and corner stores instead of grocery stores, a high prevalence of obesity and diet-related disease, and food dollars from hard-earned incomes that left the community through “leakage.” In fact, it was this food justice term “leakage” that really tweaked my economic and social justice sensibilities. A 2004 study showed that for every dollar spent at a locally-owned business, 68 cents stayed within the local community, while only 43 cents of every dollar spent at a chain store stayed within the community. Ahmadi lives these numbers, working hard to bring a grocery store into West Oakland, which will create jobs and build the local economy, all while providing healthier food to the residents.


Gottlieb and Joshi’s book title, Food Justice, is the rallying cry of organizations like People’s Grocery and many others, and this book offers a fresh perspective on some of the food system issues that advocates in the various wings of the food movement have been writing about for a long time. The new angle that Food Justice takes is to examine those food system issues through a “food justice” lens. The authors explain what that means: A food justice orientation critiques and assesses the changing nature of food production and processing. It focuses on the need to reverse the disappearance of small farmers and farm-workers, along with the need to craft a different way to relate to the land and grow food. At the center of the food justice ethos is the demand for justice in the fields and work-places that produce and process foods, and for recognition of the dignity of work and basic human rights for those who have been denied such rights.” Read More >

Urban Foraging in Asheville, NC

While accompanying my fiancé to Asheville, N.C. for one of her residency interviews, I found myself bouncing around from coffee shop to coffee shop in downtown Asheville, scooping up free internet, downing coffee, handling bits of work, bits of personal business and trying to think about whether I could live here for the next 4+ years.  Then I remembered an article we had read in the New York Times about an “Edible” park in Asheville.  I quickly looked it up, and found out that Asheville indeed had embarked on an edible park based on the foundations of permaculture and “edible forest gardens

Canopy of Fruit Trees

Canopy of Fruit Trees

I drove five minutes out of downtown and found a small park with a recreation center, looking out onto city hall.  As you walk down a path through the park, what you see are grapes lining the fence of a basketball court with fig trees, elderberry trees, and kiwis both growing and vining through fence-like structures.  Further down the path are apple trees, peach trees, berry bushes and other edible plants that I couldn’t recognize due to the coming winter season.  Everything in this area of the park is both edible and representing of mini-ecosystems called “edible-forest gardens.”  Planted next to the fruit trees are plants that work in symbiosis with the fruit tree, much like the different species in a forest.  I saw herbs that attract pollinators, ground cover like lemon balm and strawberries that keep the ground moist, avoid evaporation and block out weeds.  Other perennials like borage, comfrey and purple tree collards act as dynamic accumulators, which bring important minerals from the soil and make them available to the surrounding plants, while plants like artichoke act as natural “mulchers” that continually feed the soil.  I did not see all of these plants present, but I can understand that is their vision. Read More >

Childhood obesity may have leveled off, but disparities are getting worse for adolescents in California?

A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health, looked at obesity rates in adolescents comparing income groups and gender in the years, 2001-2007. What they found was potentially alarming. This study reveals that when comparing adolescents under the poverty line (<100% of poverty) and adolescents whose family income is greater than 300 percent of poverty, adolescents from low-income households show over double the obesity prevalence. There are many studies that have shown increases in obesity across all income groups. However, there is continuing speculation that obesity and income may have an inverse relationship, as incomes go up, obesity rates tend to be lower and vice-versa. There is no definitive answer as to why this may occur, but it is speculated that higher income families have more access to healthy foods, and that low-income families may make eating decisions related what foods provide the most caloric value for the money spent, often consuming calorically rich, but nutrient poor foods. There are, of course, many factors that help shape these trends.

The adolescent obesity gap increases.

The adolescent obesity gap increases.

To explain, in 2001 the obesity rate for California adolescents living under 100 percent of poverty was 17 percent and for those in households earning more than 300 percent of poverty, it was only 10 percent. That’s a difference of seven percent. However, by 2007, that disparity between income groups had over doubled to 15 percent; a 23 percent rate for low-income adolescents and an 8 percent rate for higher income adolescents. For a family of four, the poverty rate in 2007, was $21,203, so 300 percent of poverty is $62,609, hardly a king’s ransom for a family of four, but therein lays the disparity. Read More >

Meatless Monday Launches at Johns Hopkins University

Today marked the launch of Meatless Monday on Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus.  Elaborate banners of cartoon cows, chickens and pigs that read, “Monday is my day off!” greeted students as they entered JHU Dining Service’s three

Banners welcome students

Banners welcome students

main dining areas: Levering Food Court, Fresh Food Court and Nolan’s. The Center for a Livable Future, the Office of Sustainability at Hopkins and several student groups including: Students for Environmental Action (SEA), Eco-Reps, and Real Food Hopkins lent JHU Dining a hand in launching the campaign. Meatless Monday asks students to reduce their meat consumption by 15%, by giving up meat once a week, in an attempt to improve health for not only the students themselves, but the environment as well.

Volunteers handed out stickers and pamphlets, while informational posters peppered throughout the cafeterias explained the benefits of going “meatless” once a week.  Meatless Monday is a perfect compliment to the Hopkins Sustainability Office’s “Know your Food Print” campaign, whose goal is to educate Hopkins students about how their food choices affect the environment.

JHU Dining’s Executive Chef Michael Gueiss, said he was excited to bring Meatless Monday on campus. While all the meat options remained on the menu, Chef Gueiss made sure that there were plenty of new and some familiar vegetarian meal options available for customers. The meals ranged from new vegetarian pizza options and special lentil soup to a portabella mushroom cheese -melt with sautéed onions. Read More >

Richmond’s Urban Agriculture Institutes: A First Stage Impact Study

I wanted to post an impact study that I performed this year of the Urban Agriculture Institutes that I used to run in Richmond, Calif.  This paper represents the first step in a program evaluation of Urban Tilth’s Urban Agriculture Institutes.  While this study had an intervention/control cross sectional design, with no baseline data it cannot make any causal claims.  The data for the full program evaluation does have a pre/post element and is being currently analyzed.

The program that Urban Tilth is now running is a mature, well conceived model that I believe has replicable qualities for schools throughout the country.  The idea is fairly simple.  An urban agriculture program at the high school level, that gives high school graduation credit, provides food system education, cooking and tasting demonstrations, community and service learning all under the larger focus of intensive urban food production.  Students manage their own school garden or farm, and create a working Community Supported Agriculture  (CSA) business model to provide produce to the community.  During the summer when school is out (and school gardens become abandoned) Urban Tilth hires the trained Urban Aggers to continue their training, and manage many school and urban gardens throughout the summer.  Students return next year as leaders in the continuing work of producing food for the community.

I hope you enjoy reading it and I’m getting excited about putting together the final program evaluation to show a national audience what Urban Tilth is doing…

Students Growing Food:  A Study of a Food-Production Focused Intervention in a California High School