You are, quite literally, what you eat! Every food and drink we ingest either becomes synthesized into our cells or “filtered” through our natural detoxification system – the liver, kidneys, intestines, respiratory tract, skin and lymphatic system.
When the food we eat becomes toxic – due to chemicals used in the growing process, animal overcrowding or mishandling, cross-contamination from nearby factories or general industrial processing – we pay the price in our health.
Our increased reliance on convenience food and commodity crops has resulted in a debilitating rise in health care costs from obesity-related diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes. According to Mike Fedison, Hilltop Hanover farming professional and full-time new dad, “labor (human jobs required for organic food production) is more expensive than chemicals, whose true costs are externalized to society.” Fedison explains that these hidden costs include things like tax burden for pesticide monitoring/oversight, poisoned honey bees, contaminated fish, antibiotic resistant bacteria and higher utility bills to filter farm chemicals from tap water.
The health impact of toxins in our food supply is apparent. Pesticides that target an insect’s central nervous system, as many do, can have a neurotoxic effect on humans too. Some research has indicated that pesticides influence the development of ADHD and the expression of autism genes. Just living near a farm that uses pesticides has been associated with a lower IQ in developing children. Exposure to pesticides may increase the risk of developing asthma or exacerbating asthmatic conditions. Some studies indicate that glyphosate, a widely-used herbicide, has carcinogenic potential. Evidence is mounting, linking the widespread organophosphate exposure to the Type 2 diabetes and obesity epidemics.
Compared to adults, young children are at increased danger from pesticides, due to their greater food-to-body-size ratio, and their propensity to insert their hands in their mouth nine times per hour. While the EPA approves new pesticides and acceptable tolerance levels in foods, their clearance of these chemicals is based primarily on a lack of negative data; without decades of research, it would be impossible to prove them safe.
Good food remains elusive, or at least inconvenient, and often more expensive. It is much easier to access Doritos or McDonalds than steamed vegetables. According to Douglass DeCandia, Food Growing Project Coordinator for the Food Bank for Westchester (farms located in Bedford Hills, Valhalla, White Plains and Yonkers), the problem is partly one of mindlessness. “Food is so easy to get that we don’t think about the quality of it until we become sick.” By connecting people to their food, DeCandia helps to create a greater appreciation for the resources that go into it. Often, our culture emphasizes quantity over quality. John Ubaldo, AKA “John Boy”, a Pound Ridge local and owner of The Outpost in Bedford, has his own take on that: “People should pay a fortune for a chicken so they don’t waste it!”
Ubaldo knows a thing or two about food supply inputs. When he left Wall Street to buy a farm in upstate New York, he found that the commercially available feed was full of toxins. He now grinds his own animal feed weekly, using only non-GMO and locally sourced ingredients. John Boy understands the power of wholesome food; his grateful customers regularly share how the right food supply has helped their families. Ubaldo can legitimately claim, “We actually heal people with food.” Through his August West Foundation, named for his young son, he is working toward a complete restructuring of the farm system, with a focus on sustainability.
When we tackle the debate for healthcare, we may be missing the elephant in the room. Skyrocketing levels of chronic disease make medical coverage a losing proposition. We need to consider the prevention end, and current research gives us all the tools we need to do that. “Chemicals and sprays have just replaced knowledge,” gripes Ubaldo. A constant stream of “information” from social media and “news” outlets only adds to the confusion. Meanwhile, chemical manufacturers and Big Ag profit from our ignorance.
What can you do to reduce your family’s exposure to harmful toxins? Think big picture! One hot dog may not cause cancer, but a general diet of mostly “junk food” sure puts you at greater risk. A whole foods plant-based diet (organic or not) is still superior to one focused on processed foods (even if they’re organic!). Pesticide-free produce may be the healthiest choice for both people and planet, but it’s not always accessible or affordable.
Five simple things you can do:
1. Whenever possible, buy food from the farmer you know. Eat locally produced food. Farmers markets are sprouting up all over Westchester, where farmers will be happy to speak with you about their growing methods and ideology. Know your food’s origin.
2. Eat a variety of foods from every food group, especially fruits and vegetables. Making half your plate (or more) vegetables is the single best way to protect yourself and your children from chronic diseases. Too much of any one food could lead to high levels of a toxin or overdose of a nutrient. Rotating seasonal foods helps with this.
3. Grow your own food. Even apartment dwellers can grow a window sill herb garden. Homegrown food provides full understanding of the inputs. It doesn’t get any fresher than spinach picked from a planter on your deck!
4. Compost, if possible. Start a bin for your wholesome food scraps. It saves on pollution (garbage hauling), and you can use the resulting “black gold” to feed your organic garden or lawn, eliminating the need for synthetic fertilizers.
5. Buy organic. The more consumer demand for organics increases, the greater pressure on farmers to make sustainable choices for the planet. Buying organic foods helps bring down the cost for everyone. As John Boy says, “We have more power than any corporation in America.” Vote with your fork!
Elisa Bremner, RDN CDN, is a Practical Dietitian with a passion for food justice. She has two teenage sons and believes that children everywhere should have the same access to healthy, wholesome food that they do.
Acquaint yourself with these terms as the language we use to talk about food is changing.
Big Ag is a term often ascribed to corporate farming, where companies own or influence farming on a large scale, either through mass production of major mono-crops, government lobbying, or (often misleading) media campaigns.
Certified Organic (USDA Organic) means a product is required to meet specific standards, including no use of synthetic fertilizers, synthetic pesticides or sewage sludge; it cannot be genetically engineered or irradiated; animals must eat only organically grown feed and can’t be treated with synthetic hormones or antibiotics; animals must have access to the outdoors and cannot be cloned.
Commodity Crops (in food policy) refers to those that are regulated by federal programs in the U.S. Farm Bill. The five biggest are cotton, wheat, corn, soybeans and rice. They were originally designated due to their fairly non-perishable nature, i.e. they could be stored if there is a surplus.
GMO (genetically modified organism) means any organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. GMOs are created in a laboratory by extracting genes from the DNA of one species and forcing them into an unrelated plant or animal. The foreign genes may come from bacteria, viruses, insects, animals or even humans.
Glyphosate is a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide and crop desiccant. It is used to kill weeds and/or to dry out crops for easier harvesting. Monsanto brought it to market in 1974 under the trade name Roundup.
Pesticides are substances used for destroying insects or other organisms harmful to cultivated plants or to animals. These can be synthetic or organic/naturally derived (some may be toxic).
Sustainable Agriculture means an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term satisfy human food and fiber needs; enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends; make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls; sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.
• August West Foundation – augus
• Food Bank for Westchester – foodb
• Hilltop Hanover Farm – hillt
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