Eating Closer to Home

Have you ever pondered how extraordinary it is that we can order a spring salad in the dead of winter?  Or that we can enjoy winter squash in the dog days of summer?  The sky is the proverbial limit when it comes to our food choices.  Indeed, much of what we eat has traveled by plane—or truck or barge–and sometimes all three.  The global market has provided many of us with unparalleled access to our hearts’ (or stomachs’) desires, regardless of what season it may be in our little corner of the world.

But who’s really benefiting from all this choice, this unfettered access to a never-ending variety of foods, including faultless fruits and vegetables?  Certainly not our children, whose rates of overweight and obesity have tripled in the past five decades.  Today, approximately one in every three American children or teenagers is overweight or obese.  The epidemic of childhood obesity led Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona to make this sobering testimony to the U.S. Senate in 2004:  “Because of the increasing rates of obesity, unhealthy eating habits, and physical inactivity, we may see the first generation [of children] that will be less healthy and have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.”  The surge in childhood obesity is evidence that more food choice does not necessarily contribute to a healthier population.

In addition to its questionable benefit to our children’s health,  the long-distance food business is negatively impacting the health of our Earth.  According to Barbara Kingsolver, renowned American novelist and environmentalist:  “The average food item on a U.S. grocery shelf has traveled farther than most families go on their annual vacations.”  It’s been estimated that most American food items travel between 1,500 to 2,500 miles before reaching your plate.  This mileage represents a 25% increase since 1980.  Michael Pollen, noted American journalist and food and agriculture activist, has aptly observed that perhaps petroleum should be listed as an ingredient on food labels.  Pollan points out that one-fifth of the fossil fuel consumed in the U.S. along with one-third of the greenhouse gases produced in this country come from the growing, processing, and distribution of food. (According to Steven L. Hopp, author and professor of environmental studies, the actual growing of food utilizes only one-fifth of the total petroleum oil involved in food production. The rest is used in processing and transportation).  This oil is what greases the industrial food chain.

If our children and environment don’t benefit from the long-distance food business, do these off-season items at least taste good? Not really.  Remember that tomato you ate last week?  Probably not, because its taste was frankly—forgettable.  The vast majority of tomatoes distributed in the U.S. are picked green and sprayed with supplemental ethylene so they can ripen along the way and arrive at the supermarkets looking presentable (a tomato touch-up, if you will).  In the U.S., tomatoes grown in temperate climates are tastiest in July and August.  When picked from the vine in mid- to late summer, tomatoes should taste spicy and sweet!

In summary, having access to a variety of produce from all over the world does not necessarily translate into healthier people.  The industrial food-producing machine also provides access to more processed foods that are high in fats, salt, and sugar.  And eating long-distance foods also negatively impacts our environment.  ‘Eating locally’ means eating what’s in season in your area, and it therefore lessens the carbon footprint of our food.   And introducing your kids to local, unprocessed whole foods will improve their health.

So how can you and your kids become “locavores”?  Here are some ideas:

-Visit www.localharvest.org to locate a farmers’ market near you.  Take your kids with you—they’ll learn more about the seasons & their food’s roots (literally)!
-Lobby for healthy foods & for food-growing curricula in your children’s schools: www.farmtoschool.org
-Dine at restaurants that serve locally produced foods:  www.eatwell.org
-Rediscover regional specialties by cooking with foods that are in season in your neck of the woods.
-Participate in a community-sponsored agriculture (CSA) operation.  Have your kids help plan the week’s menu from the produce and meats you receive!  www.localharvest.org/csa/
– Pair the social with the physical aspects of eating:  eat together as a family while enjoying the conversation:  www.slowfood.com and www.slowfoodusa.org
-Start or contribute to a community garden.  Take your kids to donate the produce to a local food pantry:  acga.localharvest.org
-Read the following books (to yourself or your young ones):  Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, and Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook.

References
Worldwatch Institute:  http://www.worldwatch.org/node/827
American Heart Institute:  http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/Overweight-in-Children_UCM_304054_Article.jsp#.TubMJfKh73A
UNC Interview with Michael Pollan:  http://unc.news21.com/index.php/stories/diet.html
Kingsolver B, Hopp SL, Kingsolver C.  (2007) Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  New York, NY:  HarperCollins Publisher.

This post was written by Dr. Ana Nobis, Preventive Medicine resident at Meharry Medical College

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