- Faith Miller
- Nanna Meyer teaches healthy eating and sustainable farming at the UCCS farmhouse.
In the 21st century, grain isn’t cool.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. University of Colorado at Colorado Springs Associate Professor of Health Sciences Nanna Meyer knows this all too well. The driving force behind UCCS’ Grain School — an annual three-day convening of farmers, millers, chefs, bakers, brewers and students that’s planted seeds of action around sustainable food — Meyer notes that, trendy or not, grain shapes the average person’s daily reality more than they might realize. We are all a part of the “grain chain.”
Globally, more than 50 percent of the world’s caloric intake comes directly from grains, and not just wheat, rice and corn — lesser-known ancient grains like millet, sorghum, amaranth and emmer are making a comeback. These are grains that shaped human civilizations — through times of war, peace, famine and plenty — over thousands of years.
The fourth Grain School was held in late January, with Meyer and her colleagues offering workshops on everything from noodle-making to grain economics to distilling, malting and brewing. But their efforts go far beyond the event — they are trying to change the way Coloradans think about grain and its role in our physical health, nutrition, environment, economy and culture.
Meyer, who founded the UCCS sport nutrition graduate program in 2009, is a dietitian who’s worked with athletes at the collegiate and Olympic levels, holds a half-time appointment with UCCS Dining and Hospitality Services and manages several local initiatives around food literacy.
We met with Meyer at the UCCS Farmhouse, an on-campus food literacy hub where students, faculty and community members learn about health and sustainability by cooking and gardening. Grain is a big subject to tackle — so we broke Meyer’s wisdom into digestible chunks (and edited for clarity and brevity).
Nanna Meyer: Grain School really started very strong with looking at farming, looking at ways of connecting the dots of the grain chain — so if you think about farming and growing the seed, then harvesting, milling, baking, malting, cooking, there was enough there to spur the interest and the consensus amongst Grain School attendees ... that a [“Grain Chain”] membership organization in Colorado would be useful. And so that’s a big one. We have a steering committee that’s comprised of people from the northeastern plains of Colorado to Boulder County, all the way down to southern Colorado and the San Luis Valley.
So is the Grain Chain kind of a way for brewers and chefs to find local growers of different types of grains?
Yep, exactly. And we are really at the beginning, so one thing for Grain School 2020 is to learn from others that have done these grain chains successfully.
What else came out of Grain School?
We had a symposium that highlighted how important it is to build soil health ... and how grain production is so drought-hardy and water-conserving.
And then ... we talked about gluten and protein content and what happens during fermentation and how easy to digest sourdough breads are compared to more quickly baked breads that you typically get at the store that are yeasted. They take one hour until they are fluffy. Whereas the sourdough loaf, especially using whole grain, will take a day or two until it’s baked, with a sourdough starter that’s built over three days.
Many [ancient] grains ... have more micronutrients and antioxidants. And they protect the cells. So when it’s fermented, all of these nutrients are better available to the body so we can actually absorb those nutrients.
So in human health, there are many, many reasons why we should go back to some of these old traditions, especially old traditions in bread baking, and sourdough bread, but also the diversity of grain.
And then when you think about [a grain kernel], in the middle is the endosperm that’s just carbohydrates — it’s just starches, basically. But outside is the bran layer, and that’s filled with fiber... And then there’s also what we call the germ, and to me, it’s the powerhouse of the grain. It’s where the lipids are, the healthy fats, it’s where all of those antioxidants are housed. It’s where all the B vitamins are; the minerals are. So, iron and zinc are located there. And so if you strip a whole grain of this bran layer and the germ, there’s nothing left, it’s just white. It’s just carbs, starches. And so that’s how people eat, right — white bread, all these processed cereals in the morning with sugar, white rice, yellow corn, sweet corn.
Grain contributes to a huge amount of our diet, and if we eat it all white we are missing out on what grain [was] intended to be and [what] wheat [was] intended to be. It was a nutritious part of our diet. And with milling and separating and sifting, in the late 1800s we started to extract all of the goodness out of the grain and left only the white.
- Courtesy Nanna Meyer
- Students at Grain School learned baking methods that emphasize nutrition.
Absolutely. And that’s for me, as a nutrition professional, very clear... We eat it totally processed, so we’re lacking fiber. A new Lancet study came out that showed fiber consumption across the world. Everywhere, in all segments of the population, fiber consumption is below requirements... We have completely alienated ourselves from what’s nutritious and what’s actually healthy in grain. And so we blame it on modern wheat, which is totally wrong. It’s not modern wheat. It’s the fact that we’re just eating processed food. We’re eating white buns. We’re eating white pasta, white everything. Everything’s processed.
And there’s good research, if you compare modern wheat to ancient wheats, there are definitely some things that have changed, especially the minerals. And they also relate to the soil, right? Our soils are becoming more depleted. And there’s a variability across the globe in soil quality, but modern varieties of wheat, they lack iron and zinc... Wheat was exploited for yield and nutrition was left behind, and the flavor too.
The research is very clear that whole grain and dietary fiber relate to reduced risk for cancer, reduced risk of diabetes, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease — very clear — and obesity, weight control, all those diseases that are diet-related.
How do we start encouraging change?
This farmhouse here is a food-literacy house. We started out in 2011 with The Flying Carrot food literacy project ... bringing together nutrition professionals with the farming community. So our dietitians went to the farms and to the urban gardens and learned a lot more about food.
We have mills here, so we show students how to mill, we show students how to bake sourdough bread, students take Grain School — we actually have teachers coming to Grain School to learn about this. So then they take it out into the community.
We have lots of kids coming here all summer long to learn about gardening, vegetables, tasting, cooking. We go into the community with The Flying Carrot. We have a program, Food Next Door, that brings the fresh food from the farm, incorporating these grains in vegetarian meals to freshman students in the dining halls. But, you know, this is a really difficult community. And so how can we mobilize people here? How is Colorado Springs going to wake up? We are losing local farmers. The family farms of Colorado, the small- to medium-sized family farms, are dying one after the other, and especially southern Colorado. We’re losing our foodshed, we’re losing our water.
Pueblo County is a good example, with farmers being offered better money for development. They say, “I’m tired and nobody buys my food. If I can sell my land to developers and sell off my water right for a better price... ?” So land grabbing is happening, water rights are sold. And once the water rights are gone, there’s no more agriculture. It’s all over. And Pueblo County has some of the richest soil in the state, and a rich cultural history.
And so how do we as consumers support that? By going to farmers markets?
Yeah, buying local. And kids and students, and parents, they have to demand local food from local farms in the schools. It’s really tough. The dollar really determines everything. Local food is not always the cheapest. But there are ways to get involved on farms and at farmers markets. Speaking with the farmer — learning that there’s, you know, the small garlic and there’s the large culinary garlic. You can get the small garlic, it might take you a little bit longer to peel it, but it’s much cheaper. And buying food in season when the farmers have it at peak. The price is going to be fair, because they have so much.
Small- to medium-sized farmers ... have created a system that’s called a food hub. It’s a cooperative of farmers where there’s one aggregation place, one distribution place, going into a variety of different wholesale accounts. And so that’s an interesting model. It’s much more efficient for a farmer than going to the farmers market.
The food hubs are critical. And we happen to have an incredible food hub called Tap Root [Cooperative] that’s a collaborative now between the Arkansas Watershed and the Rio Grande in the San Luis Valley. And Colorado Springs and Pueblo are the communities that could totally eat from those places, but they’re not buying. People here are not buying. So they’re very blind to this dire scenario.