Danijela Unkovich on dairy, chicken coops and keeping our kids in fine feather

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I’d never been to Papatoetoe, or not that I could remember at least. Resting just beside the motorway, the winding suburban streets with brick and tile were welcoming. Familiar. They put you at ease. I reached a cul-de-sac and at the end sprang a sweeping driveway with well-mulched trees and manicured grass. There was a speed bump, which reminded me to take it slow. 

Asking for Danijela at reception, I was requested to sign in and wait. There was a board across from me that looked like a science project, explaining the sugar levels in different drinks. According to their figures, Coke came off worst. Danijela explained this display was one of the first things she produced when she came to Dingwall Trust, a care protection facility where at-risk kids come to be safe. She’s now the in-house nutritionist and sees food as her most effectual tool. “It’s all about making food fun.” I was there on a two-pronged mission: to check out a garden and to quiz her about milk. 

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The kids were busy. Swimming, making, doing. They were all consumed in a school holiday programme and, just like any other NZ kids, they were loving splashing about in the sun. I swooped in and asked Danijela my first question. When I think milk, I think protein and I wanted to understand why we needed protein in the first place. “Protein’s a vital nutrient, absolutely critical for a healthy body and fundamental to our structural architecture. It’s abundant within us and part of cells, tissues and organs from our muscles to our skin and hair. It provides the building blocks of many of our hormones, enzymes and neurotransmitters.”

A boy of about five ran up and asked her to blow up a sunny, but limp-looking lilo. He needed to find a pump. As we wove around a corner, Danijela’s already enthusiastic pace doubled. “Here it is. The garden.” Last winter, with the help of a sponsor, Danijela hired a digger and wrangled plants, soil, timber and volunteers to create an organic vegetable garden for the kids. What had once been an empty green patch – mowed from time to time and occasionally enjoyed – is now home to a dozen raised beds, a greenhouse, a bean teepee, a chicken coop and garden shed. “I’m a perfectionist, so that big pile of soil that we removed from the ground to make the beds annoyed me. We decided to keep it and plant a badass haven of pumpkins, corn and potatoes.” Not surprisingly, the ‘instant gratification foods’ go the fastest – cherry tomatoes and strawberries are class favourites. 

We sat under a tree on crates that had been filled with soil and planted with camomile to create a calm spot for the kids to sit. I wanted to get back to protein. Is dairy really a good source for it? “Overall dairy products are great sources of protein – although, being such a diverse group of foods, the protein content varies depending on the type of dairy product. Yoghurt’s generally a higher source of protein than milk.”

“You need to see the chicken coop,” she added, and we moseyed over to Selena and Georgia, who were given to Dingwall late last year. Danijela had to learn how to care for them, the day they arrived. “The internet is a great source of knowledge. I use Pinterest all the time for recipe and class inspiration.” We fed them courgette; giant yellow things fresh from the garden.

So if milk, or dairy, was good, I wondered if it was possible to have too much of a good thing. “Two to three servings of dairy a day is about right in a healthy balanced diet. But, variety is key and if we’re eating too much of one food group, we may risk displacing other nutrients in our diets.”

A girl of about seven came running up to her and gave her a hug. She wondered what they were doing with food for the holiday programme that day. Food art was the answer. They were going to make edible teddy bears using bread, banana and blueberries. We walked on. 

The orchard was just down the hill, and the twiggy, mossy branches of the crab apple, peach and lemon trees had borne a lot of fruit, feeding a fair few kids over the years. Preserving was next on the agenda. We were losing too many apples. I asked about the modern fascination with good fats and bad fats and what the difference was. Danijela paused, took a breath in and said, “We should be more concerned with the quality of the food, especially when we’re talking about whole foods. Coconut flesh is an ample source of the once demonised saturated fat and gives a lot of health benefits as a whole food, while a highly processed cheeseburger, which is another source of saturated fat, doesn’t.” It turns out we need dietary fat from foods for fuel, as insulation to help regulate our temperature and to protect our organs and help absorb nutrients. “There are so many beautifully nourishing and natural foods containing saturated fats that make great additions to a balanced diet, such as full-fat milk, creamy natural yoghurt, coconut and butter.”

We drifted back to the school hall and helped shove a plump, shark-shaped lilo through a doorway. The sun must have set on the other one, I thought. So where does this leave us on cholesterol? “We used to think that high-fat dairy products contributed to increased levels of cholesterol in the body and, contribute to heart disease. But many studies have since thrown out this line of thinking, finding no association between dairy intake and increased mortality. In fact, high-fat, natural dairy products are very healthy foods.”

We found ourselves next to the compost heap. She was fast to point out it was a “work in progress” and that she was still learning the art. Gardening’s been a steep learning curve.

Danijela’s a city girl and could be cooped up in a clinic somewhere advising adults how to keep on track with their ‘new year, new you’ resolutions. Instead, she divides her time between the kids, the garden and the clinic. “It’s been amazing to actually produce food. And to witness first-hand how it grows, what it needs, all the ins and outs. Companion planting has been big. Have you heard of The Three Sisters planting technique?”

I wanted to ask, from a nutrition point of view, what evidence there was for organic food. “It’s not just about the chemicals we’re not ingesting, it’s also about the nutritional differences. When it comes to commercial practices, plants are repetitively planted and harvested, which depletes the soil of some important nutrients. If the nutrients aren’t in the soil, then we can’t expect they’ll exist at optimal levels in the plant”.

Excitable kids started circling around us. I told her about a cold composting course I was going to at The Grey Lynn Library, in a few weeks. It was time for art class, with food. 

“I’ve heard microbes are fun!” She called out behind me.