Farm to Label: Are Organics Really Better?

By: Nikki Nies

 The organic market has grown significantly as it accounts for 30% more jobs per hectare than the non-organic market. Here’s an infographic by MPH Online, outlining the meaning behind the organic label, as well as the costs and revenues of the organic market. Check it out!

Farm to Label - MPHOnline


Photo Credit: MPH Online

USDA Thrifty Food Program

FoodPlans_LandingPageBy: Nikki Nies

The USDA Thrifty Food Program (TFP) may not be as well known as the Food Stamp program, but it is a critical aspect of the four part (Thrifty, Low-Cost, Moderate-Cost, and Liberal) USDA food plan that is the framework of the allocated Food Stamp benefits. Of the four food plans, TFP is the least expensive and is calculated on a monthly basis using data collected from the Consumer Price Index.

The monthly cost used for TFP represents a national average of expenditures-deriving from the traditional four person household, composed of an adult couple and two school aged children, which is adjusted to reflect economies of scales. TFP is priced every June, with a set maximum benefit level for the following October.  TFP represents a healthful way to utilize one’s Food Stamp benefits on a modest budget.

The TFP calculator is used to learn about the tradeoffs between nutrition costs of food and quality. The calculator is a tool that helps USDA nutritionists and economists develop the TFP.  The maximum benefit awarded in the Food Stamp Program is based on the cost of TFP which takes in consideration trends in food prices, characteristics and consumer spending behavior. A mathematical algorithm is used to decide how much is awarded to recipients. Don’t worry, families don’t have to know how to calculate their awarded benefits to receive the benefits!

Yet, the above information is interesting to note, especially if you are curious about how the amount one’s awards for food stamps is curated.

Photo Credit: USDA


Cooking Matters

logoBy: Nikki Nies

With the holiday season just around the corner, it seems fitting to talk about a giving activity–Cooking Matters, that is.  Cooking Matters strives to make sure children have access to the healthy foods they need daily. Participants include mothers, fathers and whole families that want to make healthier meals on a budget, learn sound nutrition advice and how to cook delicious dishes!

As part of the No Kid Hungry campaign, for the past 20 years, Cooking Matters has made tremendous contributions with the help of volunteer instructors.  More than 120,000 low income families have had greater access to the necessary tools and resources to eat healthier! In addition, Cooking Matters has been features on the Let’s Move campaign and recognized by the USDA for its excellence in nutrition education.

Want access to Cooking Matters while on the go? Make sure to download their free healthy app, that offers more than 90 recipes for you to make today! What’re you waiting for?!?

Photo Credit:Cooking Matters


Nourish to Flourish



Copycat Snacks

By: Nicole Arcilla

A new school year has begun and students are well on their way into the first semester. No doubt parents all over the country were looking up ideas for quick lunches and snacks to pack for their kids. [Quick—how many recipes do you think were pinned on Pinterest before the first day of school??] For some parents, it’s a struggle to think up creative lunch and snack ideas to send off with their kids. Many parents will rely on the school to provide meals and snacks. But not to worry – there’s always plenty of options kids can choose from at school! Plus with all the school food regulations there’s got to be plenty of healthy choices too, right?….RIGHT?! Maybe not.

Screen-Shot-2014-07-22-at-4.41.50-PMBefore we get into the issue at hand, let’s add in a little more context:

In 2010, President Obama signed into law the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. This act aims to improve child nutrition and provide funding for free school lunch programs. In addition to these goals, the act also required that the USDA establish national nutrition standards for food sold and served in schools.  In 2013 the USDA proposed new food rules. After reviewing public comments and much revision of the rules, the USDA published “Smart Snacks in School.” The rules required any school participating in the National School Lunch Program to comply to the new guidelines by July 1st, 2014.

So what exactly does the Smart Snacks in School rules do? These rules set strict guidelines for competitive foods – specifically foods that are sold in vending machines or in à la carte lunch lines, and even fundraisers and student school stores. Essentially, in order for a food product to be sold at school, it must be able to check off every single requirement of the Smart Snacks in School rules — including not exceeding the set limits on calories, fats, sugar, and sodium. Depending on the product, other rules may apply, but for now we’ll look at these basic rules.

Naturally, food companies weren’t going to give up and simply pull their products out of the school market. Instead they went back to the drawing board and reformulated their recipes. These new items have successfully checked off every single box on that Smart Snacks checklist (but barely). Snacks like Doritos, Goldfish, Cheetos, and others are now lower in fat, sodium, calories, etc…at least that’s how they are inside of schools. Now, this is where the problem starts: the packaging of these approved food products look incredibly identical to the original packaging that you see sold in stores. From the eyes of a child, there is zero difference between the Smart Snacks and the original snacks sold in stores. Cara Wilking, J.D., a senior staff attorney with the Public Health Advocacy Institute, states that this is exactly what food companies are trying to achieve – to use near identical packaging in order to “co-market traditional junk food to children in school”.

Earlier this year Wilking released a brief on these school approved snacks, now called “Copycat Snacks”.  In her brief Wilking explains that having similar packaging may allow the child to believe that traditional snacks sold in stores are just as healthy as the ones sold in their schools. Who can blame them? At first glance the packaging of these snacks are too similar to notice any difference. Moreover, most of these Smart Snacks aren’t even sold in local grocery stores — so children and their parents wouldn’t exactly know to look for those “Smart Snacks” packaging and logo. See for yourself and look through the pictures Wilking provides in her brief. Be honest – would you have noticed the difference?

Wilking and several other attorneys are well on their way to resolve this issue by working with other organizations such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has increased drastically in the last three decades. By 2012, more than one-third of children were classified as obese. Today, the numbers are reaching a sort of plateau, but that doesn’t change the fact that so many children are at risk for even more health complications as adults or even experiencing them now. Considering these facts and numbers, it’s important that continued action is taken to help improve the food environment of the children, particularly the ones in school. Schools are, after all, the one place that children spend majority of their days in. Luckily, the Smart Snacks in School rules are actually an ongoing process and the USDA will continue to make improvement before finalizing the rules – so there’s plenty of opportunity to improve this current situation with the Copycat Snacks.

How would you handle the situation with these Copycat Snacks? What message do you have for the food companies?

Photo Credit: Smart Snacks in School 

Healthy Eating Index

Original Image by USDA via Flickr
Original Image by USDA via Flickr

By:Nikki Nies

 The USDA’s Healthy Eating Index-2010 (HEI) measures the diet quality of Americans and our adherence with Dietary Guidelines.  HEI monitors changes in trends and patterns.  The index is also a great tool for research and  evaluation of nutrition interventions and epidemiological needs.

To clarify, the index isn’t a checklist, but a scoring system to be used to assess the quality of  a program, food, menu and/or dietary pattern.  The index focuses on the five food groups, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium content.  There are three components that focus on moderation and nine components focus on dietary adequacy and how to increase that intake.

The HEI is a sum of the components, with each component with a maximum score of 10.  Essentially, like an  exam, high component scores indicate intakes close to the recommended ranges or amounts.  Lower component scores indicate less compliance with the recommended ranges or amounts.  To learn more, check out the data archives!


Total Diet Approach to Healthy Eating


An Exhaustive List of Food Assistance Programs

800px-USDA_logo_svgAn Exhaustive List of Food Assistance Programs

A brochure put together by the USDA that provides a comprehensive explanation of all the programs available for American Indians, children, infants, elderly and/or whole families!

Summer Food Service Program (SFSP)

sfsp-logoBy: Nikki Nies

While the School Breakfast Program and National School Lunch Program help families out during the school year, food insecurity rises dramatically once school’s out.  Funded by the USDA, the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) helps make meals more accessible to children under the age of 18 years old over the summer months.

In 2012, SFSP helped more than 2.3 million children were served daily at over 38,000 sites.Since hunger is one of the largest roadblocks in the learning process, good nutrition is important all year round. By providing food to eligible children, the chance of illness decreases.

As an amendment to the National School Lunch Act, the SFSP has been making strides since 1968.There are 3 main entities involved: state agencies, sponsors and sites.  State agencies are in charge of running the program and are a liaison with the USDA.  Sponsors communicate with the state agencies, local government and other nonprofit organizations that have the ability to manage a food service program. Sponsors can be public or private, with the government reimbursing sponsors for the food at a set rate.

Lastly, sites are the physical places in the community where children will receive meals.  Sites can include churches, migrant churches, parks, community centers and/or schools.

To find out where your closest SFSP is, you can call the National Hunger Hotline at 1866HUNGRY or 18778HAMBRE to find the closest meal site near you.


“Say yes, and you’ll figure it out afterward.” –Tina Fey

By: Nikki Nies

Ever feel like you have to choose between two interests? I’m here to tell you don’t have to choose!

Say yes, and you’ll figure it out afterward.” –Tina Fey

Fey is not only a great example of a woman who balances family and career, but holds her own in the comedy world. While Fey’s above words sound daunting, in my humble opinion, they’re some of the best words of advice and in which I’ve used many times during decision-making.   Although, apprehension and lack of experience can cause one to decline a job or find oneself limiting his or her options, the question is how are you going to grow if you don’t go out of your comfort zone? When you take an opportunity, you don’t need to know the details of how you’ll get it done because some way, some how you will!

It can’t be denied how influential social media can be and is and the role it can play in furthering one’s opportunities and experiences, with so many for health professionals to capitalize on 1.  In addition, sadly, many people rely on social media as their source of news and real time updates.  Even though, one can groan at the extinction of physical newspapers, it’s better to join in the digital age’s main source of communication.  Social media bridges the gap between the mono direction information provides, allowing public engagement and awareness of health related news noninvasive2,3. In addition to the use of Twitter, Facebook and Youtube, blogging is an equally influential form of social media 2.   Blogs used to be reserved as a means of “public diaries”, but are now considered a place for professional development 2,4.

Not only do health professionals have to contend with those not as qualified to share credible nutrition information, but using every resource and angle can maximize the opportunities to raise awareness.   In addition to the general public requesting nutrition information, the international community wants to hear what you say and find credible blogs to be their go to guide.  Don’t believe me, don’t worry I’m bringing the experts in!  Studies have shown that the general public shy away from government backed programs are more willing to listen to what health professionals and like minded people have to say in regards to healthy eating 1,3.

Blogging allows you to not only hone your own writing skills, but bridges the gap between the people you may not have the opportunity to otherwise connect with.  Blogs are great instrument to share data, tips, explanations and my favorite part, awareness.  Blogs enlighten readers on topics bloggers hold dear to the heart, while allowing bloggers to better connect with readers in a way only writing can 1.

If I look back in my short dietetic career, all the great memories and opportunities have come from when I said “yes” to an opportunity or I stuck my neck out into a new avenue.  Growth only occurs when there’s a beginning and the only way is up. I owe my whole blogging experience to Dana Baardsen.  She is an entrepreneur and graciously invited me to start a group blog, We Dish Nutrition.

The intention of the blog was to have a cohesive blog of many minds, hence the name, but after a few months, the work of the blog has trickled down to falling solely on my shoulders.  However, I can’t believe that I’ve only been blogging since January 2013 and now I can’t imagine life without out.

Let me back track.  Of all people, I blog! Growing up I had my fair issues with grammar. I never knew where to put a comma and couldn’t differentiate between a verb and noun (so sad, but true!).  I found writing to be a hassle, but when opportunity knocked, I couldn’t say no.  During my undergraduate program at Montclair State University, I knew my writing skills weren’t up to par with where I wanted to them to be.  I submitted an article to be published in the school’s newspaper.  Low and behold that one nutrition article submission paved the way towards my dietetic career.

While blogging can be hard, it can be equally fulfilling.  Even after a year of blogging, I’m not sick of it! I’ve actually added to my blogging experience, creating a blog for SCAN (Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition (SCAN) subunit, Disordered Eating and Eating Disorders (DEED).  DEED has generously allowed me to share my own voice while being able to passionately share the words of self confidence, love and the common battle of body image.

Still wary about the prospects of writing?  Here are some friendly suggestions on how to revamp or start your own blog:

  • Just start writing! What’re you passionate about?  If you’re passionate about a topic, it’s likely others are too and want to hear what you have to say.
  • Speak from the heart.  People can tell when you’re being sincere and when you’re telling them what they want to hear.
  • Be credible:  While people shy away from government websites (i.e. USDA), that doesn’t mean you have to! Citing your information not only proves you know your information, but ensures you’re not plagiarizing
  • One of the best ways to become a better writer is to read what others have written.  Staying on top of current trends and news articles will also keep you in the loop of what others are reading!
  • Lastly, have fun with it! Having a blog takes work, but finding your our niche and voice will make it that much more enjoyable.

While life needs a balance of work and play, your dream job or passion may be a “yes” away! When I initially agreed to participate a blog, I couldn’t have predicted how great it has been for my confidence in my writing ability, the contacts I’ve made, but most of all the positive feedback I’ve received.

For additional blogging ideas, check out my two blogs, and Take the challenge, use the voice you’re dying to share and join the blogosphere!

  1. Agostino D. Using social media to engage citizens: A study of Italian municipalities. Public Relations Review. 2013;39(3):232-234.
  2. Paulus TM, Lester JN. Making learning ordinary: Ways undergraduates display learning in a CMC task. Text & Talk. 2013;33(1):53-70.
  3. Hong H. Government websites and social media’s influence on government-public relationships. Public Relations Review. 2013;39(4):346-356.
  4. Holland C, Pellechia K, Schneider J, Wilson S, Fatzinger McShane P. Intern blogs: Communicating new technology tools to a broader professional audience. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2013;113(9, Supplement):A17.