Physical Wellbeing Challenge, Round 1: Food

If you read my 2018 post describing what I learned about healthy eating while living at Srisa Asoke, then you know the arguments for a whole-food, plant-based, chemical-free diet.  Now, it’s relatively easy to be a vegan when everyone around you is, too. Like in an intentional Buddhist community in Thailand. In a typical American suburb? Not so much.

Of course, it’s still possible to experiment with healthy eating, and organic options are now common in most US grocery stores. But when I hesitate over questions like: “Which eggs should I buy: ones from cage-free chickens or vegetarian ones?” I can’t help but think about people who don’t have the luxury of such questions. The bigger question we might consider is: how can we make sure that everyone benefits from healthy food?

Remember that wellbeing is interdependent—very often, choices we make to improve our own wellbeing can positively affect other people and the planet (and, I would argue, the best ones do). It’s perhaps easiest to realize that with our choices around food. This physical wellbeing challenge proposes 10 food-related actions that can exponentially increase your healthful impact:

1. Buy direct from local farmers

The benefits of buying directly from farmers at farmers’ markets are vast and varied. The produce is so much fresher than what’s found in supermarkets, often harvested that week or even that very morning. It’s also picked ripe and ready to eat, which is not the case for produce that travels greater distances. Produce picked at the peak of ripeness is not only more flavorful; it also has the highest nutritional content. There’s also a greater variety of seasonal produce at the farmers’ market, so you’re not relegated to cooking same squash or potatoes week after week (unless you choose too). The variety extends to organic choices, though many farmers who use chemical-free pesticides are not certified organic because of the cost to do so. And speaking of cost, you can get all these organic beauties for less than you would spend at the grocery store.

In lieu of (or in addition to) the farmers’ market, you might join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program offered by a nearby farm. CSAs usually involve an up-front annual or seasonal subscription for a weekly box of produce delivered to a central pick-up point. Usually you get a sampling of everything the farm produced that week, but you might be able to swap out less favored items (for us, its beets). Those who are short on time or overwhelmed by choice appreciate the convenience of CSAs.

Of course, buying directly from local farmers serves a greater good. Without all the middlemen (or women) involved in distributing produce to grocery stores, more profit ends up in the producers’ pockets. CSAs provide even more support (hence the name). The advance subscription payments allow farmers to purchase inputs without debt and spread the risk of an unexpectedly poor harvest. And buying local reduces transportation-related fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions.

2. Evaluate organic options

Organic food isn’t always available, or it might be too expensive or not clearly better than conventional. So we need away to evaluate our organic options. For produce,consult the Environmental Working Group(EWG), one of the nation’s leading environmental health research and advocacy organizations. They publish an annual guide that analyzes government testing of pesticide residue on conventionally grown produce, summarizing their findings as the Dirty Dozen (highest residue) and the Clean Fifteen (lowest residue). 

In the 2017 report, EWG recommends going organic for the following food: apples, celery, tomatoes, grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, cherries, potatoes, spinach, strawberries, and sweet bell peppers. If you have to go with conventional, EWG says these are the cleanest: asparagus, avocado, cabbage, honeydew melon, cantaloupe, eggplant, grapefruit, kiwi, mangoes, cauliflower, onions, pineapple, and sweet peas. 

Beyond produce, other organic food products are not always clear winners in the health department. Organic dairy and eggs is a smart choice to avoid antibiotics and hormones given to livestock that are potentially harmful to human health. But there’s enough concern over antibiotics and hormones that even non-organic brands are abandoning their use. You’ll know by the label, “no artificial growth hormones,” otherwise known as rbST. 

The more processed, packaged foods labeled organic are less likely to live up to expectations. In Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan goes into detail about how some big agribusinesses in the organic industry may cut corners to maximize profit. After reading this compelling book, I favor smaller brands that embody the spirit of the organic movement. Ultimately, by supporting organic producers with our purchasing power, we help to make healthy food more available and affordable for those who currently find it out of reach. 

3. Grow your own

If you want to be sure your food is organic, grow your own! The most enthusiastic urban farmers are replanting their lawns with edibles reminiscent of post-WW2 victory gardens. For new gardens of any size, help can be had from nonprofits such as Transition, which strives to facilitate transitions to a post-oil society. In my own town, Transition Laguna Beachhas installed dozens of edible residential gardens as well as six school gardens and one at a local church. They also set up a co-op where the public can share produce and take workshops on how to grow, cook, and preserve food. Transition members offer their labor and know-how free of charge and solicit in-kind donations from local businesses to keep material costs down.

Even without much space, it’s still possible to grow your own in containers on patios and balconies, in window boxes, and even indoors. To save money, repurpose containers that would ordinarily get recycled like milk jugs, coffee cans, cookie tins, broken pitchers and colanders, or even old toilets and sinks. It’s handy to have herbs growing right outside the kitchen window or on the sill, ready to pick when needed. For other vegetables, build trellises for a vertical garden of cucumbers, pole beans, and other vines and select compact varieties like mini peppers or dwarf tomatoes. In fact, anyone new to gardening might want to start with containers, since there is less to lose with small-scale experimentation.

A third option is joining a community garden, like the one in my neighborhood, where individuals can rent six-by-eight foot raised beds for seventy-five bucks a year and can benefit from the vast expertise of 100 other gardeners. Besides getting free advice, we enjoy interacting neighbors while we work in our gardens, team up to maintain the common areas, and celebrate at regular events like the annual Fall Festival, complete with pumpkin painting for the kids and a zero-waste potluck. The “community” aspect is a huge bonus. 

4. Institute Meatless Monday (or more)

If diving headlong into a totally plant-based diet seems too extreme, start out with one day a week: Meatless Monday.  Full disclosure: my family currently follows a Mediterranean diet, including fish, poultry, dairy, and eggs. But we continually modify the food we eat, so the changes feel comfortable and right. We started out our day-based menu planning with Fish on Friday—a carry over from my husband’s Catholic upbringing. Meatless Monday thus appealed to my appreciation for routine. 

Meatless Mondayis actually a global movement with a simple message: “One day a week, cut the meat.” The organization, founded in 2003 by Sid Lerner in association with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is now active in over 40 countries and 20 languages. Campaigns include Meatless Mondays in restaurants, K-12 schools, universities, corporate dining, and hospitals, all with the goal of cutting meat consumption by 15%. While anew partnership with the National Kidney Foundation highlights Meatless Monday’s concern for human health, environmental health holds equal weight.A Meatless Monday blogger explains, “If all — or most — typical eaters reduced their meat and dairy intake by swapping a few servings a week for plant-based protein foods with low carbon footprints we could have a large collective impact.” Plainly put, we can eat our way to a better planet.

Once Meatless Monday becomes routine, try expanding into other days. Experiment with new recipes; be creative and play. Easing into a plant-based diet is possible even for the most change-adverse among us.

5. Consume coffee consciously

 Coffee drinkers have the power to do some global good by selecting beans that are sustainable and socially minded. Last year, the world consumed nearly 21 billion pounds of coffee, grown across 27 million acres of tropical forest, but only a small percentage was certifiably good for people and the planet. The most reliable certifications, offered by The Rainforest Alliance and the Smithsonian Institution Migratory Bird Center, set standards for shade-grown coffee, the latter of which is also bird friendly. The shade-grown method conserves biodiversity, protects waterways, decreases soil erosion, sequesters carbon, and eliminates chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which is healthier for producers, pollinators, birds and other wildlife, and (not least) consumers. An agroforestry approach to shade-grown coffee also allows farmers to benefit from many products like firewood, medicinal plants, and building materials that add economic value.

Socially conscious coffee drinkers might already be showing their concern by buying Fair Trade varieties, but confidence in that certification’s ability to actually improve livelihoods is waning. A better approach is to look for direct trade or  “relationship roasters”—small batch roasters who prioritize long-term relationships with their growers and commit to treating them well. Other major coffee labels also care about social impact. Whole Food’s brand, Allegro pays well above the Fair Trade price and donates 5 percent of profits to charity, 85 percent of which is spent in growers’ communities. 

A cup of coffee seems so insignificant, but given how much we drink, it’s a daily opportunity to make the world a better place.

6. Boycott Monsanto

The agribusiness giant Monsanto is well-known for developing Roundup, the most widely used herbicide in the US, and it created genetically modified seeds specifically to withstand Roundup so as to produce higher crop yields. Roundup Ready crops include soy, maize (corn), sorghum, canola, alfalfa, and cotton, which are processed into countless products that we use and consume every day. In March 2015, the World Health Organization declared Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate, a probable human carcinogen. Since that announcement, several countries, cities, and retail chains worldwide have banned or severely limited the use of glyphosate products to protect producers and consumers, as well as livestock and wildlife, which are harmed by overspray and runoff.The second issue has to do with Monsanto’s promotion of GMOs, which are extensively banned and otherwise strictly regulated in Europe out of concern for safety, transparency in labeling, traceability, and effects on biodiversity. Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds also contain a “terminator” gene, which prevents seeds being saved from crops (they won’t germinate). This hurts small farmers who save seeds to save money and have to take on debt to buy new ones.

As citizens and consumers, we can use boycotts to force companies to change their practices. Boycotting Monsanto means refusing to buy products made with ingredients grown with Roundup and Monsanto’s genetically modified Roundup Ready seeds. Lists of companiesthat sell such products have been circulating the internet for several years, including well-loved brands like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Kraft, Cambells, General Mills, and more. To avoid being overwhelmed by what brands not to buy, choose instead to by organic brands, which by definition do not contain GMOs. And sign’s petition to boycott Monsanto.

7. Find out about food insecurity

One of the world’s most pressing problems is food insecurity: the lack of reliable access to sufficient affordable, nutritious food for an active, healthy life. The phrase “food insecurity” might conjure a picture a starving African child, with pencil-thin limbs and a distended belly. But we can also find it in our own backyard. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an estimated 1 in 8 Americans were food insecure in 2016—that’s 42 million Americans, including 13 million children. 

Why so many in an affluent country? At least half of food insecure Americans live in “food deserts”: low-income neighborhoods that lack access to affordable, nutritious food. For those of us who could shop at over a dozen grocery stores in a 5-mile radius, this reality is hard to reconcile. There is something very wrong in a society where fast food is cheaper and easier to get than fresh food, especially when we can now grow and transport food year-round. 

Such a pervasive problem calls for systematic solutions. Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief organization, has been responding to the food crisis in the US for over 35 years. Feeding America has a network of 200 food banks across the country, and they run support programs like providing kids with new backpacks full of food. The United Nations made food security a global priority in the Sustainable Development Goals,which both developed and developing nations committed to meet by 2030. The #2 Goal, “End hunger,” aims to achieve food security and improved nutrition, plus promote sustainable agriculture. These are both solid resources to find out more about the current state of food insecurity and progress to date.

8. Redistribute surplus food

An easy way to fight food insecurity is to redistribute surplus food to those who need it. Canned food drives, common around the holidays, are a win-win since they clear the Costco-overstock from our pantries. Unfortunately, food banks and shelters don’t see much in the way of fresh produce. But we can change that. Our personal and public farms and gardens often have surplus, so a little intention is all it takes. 

Here’s a good example: My daughter and I started a produce-donation program several years ago in our community garden. Each week, we gathered extra veggies (with permission) from personal plots and deliver them to the Laguna Beach Friendship Shelter. The Friendship Shelter provides three months’ housing and training to 30 homeless individuals committed to staying sober and reentering the workforce. Like many shelters, their pantry contained mostly nonperishable food. When we first started bringing bags of greens to the Friendship Shelter, I worried that they might balk at all the kale (maybe toohealthy?). As it turned out, one of the residents was a chef eager to turn others on to juicing. For those residents who were newly sober, this healthy drink made by a peer was truly a gift.

Another option is to volunteer for a gleaning organization. Gleaning organizations across the country work to recover surplus food from fields and orchards and donate it to local food banks. In Orange County, California, the Harvest Clubgoes out for a couple of hours on Saturday mornings to gather fruit and vegetables left behind and then takes it to two local food banks to distribute to families in need.  Interestingly, organizations that need help harvesting are some of the few that allow younger kids to volunteer with their parents. 

9. Revolutionize school lunches

Food insecurity is a serious threat to children: without healthy meals, they simply don’t have the energy to grow and learn. School lunch programs ensure that kids can get at least one substantial meal a day. In fact, the National School Lunch Program provides low-cost or free lunches to 31 million students at 92 percent of U.S. public and private schools. But a free lunch is not necessarily a nutritious one. A 2008 school lunch study by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) found that American kids who eat in the cafeteria consume very few fruits and vegetables (potatoes make up a third of all vegetables consumed), a disproportionate amount refined grains, and too much saturated fat and sodium. 

Clearly, this has got to change. Leading the charge for school lunch reform are famous chefs like Alice Waters. Alice Waters’ organization, Edible Schoolyards, offers resources and training for public schools to create gardens and kitchens that act as interactive classrooms and provide a sustainable, delicious, and free lunches.

For us ordinary humans, we have other pathways to revolutionize school lunches. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine’s Healthy School Lunch Campaign outlines step-by-step instructions on how a parent (or concerned citizen) might broach the subject with a school principal. The Lunch Box (funded by Whole Foods Market) is an online toolbox for changing school lunches at the district level. And Farm to Schoolprograms make a vital connection to get locally grown fruits and veggies into school cafeterias in all 50 states.  Farm to School has regional offices to help individuals take first steps, and their website lists grants and free resources to support the process.

10. Support urban farms

Another effective way to fight food insecurity is to farm where people live, even in urban areas like Detroit. I grew up 30 minutes from downtown Detroit, and my sister and brother-in-law live there now. While the city is still plagued with burned-out houses and vacant lots that attract crime and just look sad, a revitalization is happening, driven by entrepreneurs, artists, and community garden organizers. According to the nonprofit, Greening of Detroit, between 1500 and 2000 urban gardens were being maintained as of 2013, transforming those vacant lots into verdant community hubs.

In fact, there’s an agricultural greenway in the works for the alley behind my sister’s live/work space. This community-led project has the expected objectives of producing food and creating community, but it will also cut down crime, including illegal dumping on the vacant lots (picture a ripped-up couch, a rusted out water heater, bald tires, and piles of broken concrete). Police officers have told my sister that “nothing good ever happens on [Barham Street] after midnight,” so they support a project that would put this neglected land to good use. While U Snap Bac, the organization spearheading the project conducts feasibility studies and soil samples, urban farmers are lining up, eager to rent a plot and get started.

To support urban farms, individuals can shop at their produce stands, stand up for them at city council meetings, serve on their board of directors (like my sister does), give them seed money (pun intended), and participate in urban farm-related programs and campaigns.

Wrap up…

If you can make only one change to your lifestyle, focus on food. A whole food, plant-based, chemical-free diet gives us the most bang for our buck when it comes to improving personal, public, and planetary wellbeing. It’s not necessarily easy, but you don’t have to do it all at once. Just take small bites 🙂

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