Do you know what quinoa looks like? Or what it tastes like? Attendees at Wednesday's "Fixing Funky Foods" presentation, hosted at the Harvey County Courthouse by the extension office, were tested immediately on that while playing a game of "guess the grain" to start things off.
Residents around Kansas have been playing a similar game recently, according to presenter Beth Ireland of the Greenwood County Extension Office, as more "funky" foods continue to be introduced to rural grocery stores around the state. Ireland sees that as a boon given the new U.S. dietary guidelines established in 2015, focusing more on fruits, vegetables and dairy oils, as well as variety in the grains and proteins that are consumed.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, more than 20,000 new foods arrive on grocery store shelves each year. While candy, snack foods and beverages make up nearly half of that total, that still leaves more than 10,000 more nutritious new items with which to experiment in the kitchen. Highlighting those different products, particularly in those targeted dietary areas, was a focus of Ireland's presentation.
"I would hope as a goal that people would be more conscious and aware of what is in our grocery stores, things that we can garden here in Kansas," Ireland said, "...and also just to kind of try some different foods to kind of increase, especially, our fruit and vegetable intake. Eating the same thing over and over is not, in the long term, great for our health. If we can find ways to get a variety of healthful things in our diet, that's how we can make the best of their nutritional value while we're eating."
Several of those "new" items are, in fact, foods that have been around for several thousands of years and are "coming full circle." Grains in particular fall into that category, as Ireland pointed out varieties like bulgur wheat and spelt date back to ancient (B.C.) times, with the latter even having biblical connotations.
Grains becoming more prominent (i.e. flax, chia, couscous, etc.) all have various benefits, as do some of the proteins Ireland brought up, like chickpeas and edamame, but the bulk of the presentation centered on the fruits and vegetables that could help expand Kansans' diets.
Before arriving, Ireland noted she made a stop at the local Wal-Mart and saw several of the "funky" foods she was talking about on the shelves, including blood oranges, mangos, papayas and more. Ireland also pointed out that some of the fruit, persimmons in particular, is native to Kansas and can be grown locally. While the list of vegetables were not as locally sourced, she still encouraged attendees to branch out in their own gardens with items like tomatillos.
"If you want to try growing your own funky food, this would be one you could try," Ireland said.
Other produce becoming more commonplace that Ireland shed some light on included the licorice-tasting fennel bulb, sweet root vegetable jicama, turnip-like rutabaga and kale, with Ireland bringing some of the latter in chip form for those present to try — something that may have sparked the seeds of experimentation in the crowd.
"The kale chips were interesting. I really liked those, so I might try that," said Pam Thomas. "I always like finding out new stuff about food. It's awesome."
Harvey County Family and Consumer Science extension agent Anne Pitts also made a quinoa salad for attendees to try and Ireland pointed out that most of the foods highlighted all have multiple uses.
Learning about these "funky" foods becoming more prominent in rural areas opens up a number of healthy eating opportunities for consumers and Ireland admitted it has pushed her to branch out as well, trying to eat one new fruit or vegetable per week.
"For a person to know if you like a food or not, you have to be introduced and try it several times," Ireland said.
Awareness about such opportunities is key. Not only do these "funky" foods provide nutritional benefits, but they can also help meet some individuals' dietary restrictions. For that reason, Ireland said being informed is important when it comes to branching out with these ingredients.
More information can be found in cookbooks, online and by contacting local extension agents. Pitts noted she plans on uploading more from the presentation on the Harvey County Extension Office website and plans on pushing forward with similar programs in the future to keep expanding palates and introducing community members to more "funky" foods.