Recently I went to see a fantastic exhibit at the National Geographic Museum in Washington D.C. called Food: Our Global Kitchen. It covered a variety of topics, including our global food system, the journey food takes from the farm to our forks, history of food cultures, how to feed our ever growing population sustainably, evolution of food species, hunger and obesity, to name a few (check out what National Geographic is doing about food here). The exhibit was fascinating for the foodie, health nut, and environmentalist in me. The take-aways are very much in line with what I have been learning in my health coaching program. They have got me thinking a lot about American food culture, how much it has changed in the past 20 or so years and the negative impact is has had on our health. But the issue isn’t only in America, it is global, as we continue to export our negative health habits. The differences in these habits I see today compared to when I was a child are drastic and downright scary.
As a country, we are headed in an unsustainable direction. We are raising the future of our country on processed, artificial food that is chock full of preservatives, hormones, pesticides, and fake flavorings. Our health as a nation is deteriorating and the amount of money we spend on medical care is skyrocketing (we rank pretty low on health care compared to other developed countries despite ours being the most expensive). We have become a culture that eats on the run or in front of the TV instead of at a table with the ones we love. The statistics these days are downright depressing, but I think they are important to know in order to grasp the extent what we are dealing with. Here are five that stand out to me:
- The issue: The U.S. agriculture industry uses approximately 1.2 billion pounds of pesticides annually to treat crops. That comes out to approximately 5 pounds per person of pesticides we are ingesting from conventional produce a year. But this produce is also being fed to livestock, which we consume when we eat meat. In addition, conventional farming practices are leading to degradation of our soil and pesticides in runoff is getting into our rivers and streams, negatively affecting marine life. The answer: Buy organic when you can (see my past blog post on this topic here!), go to farmer’s markets and learn where your food comes from and how it is grown.
- The issue: 80% of the antibiotics produced in the U.S. annually are used on livestock raised for our food supply. It all ends up in our bodies when we eat meat sourced from industrialized farms. Additionally, 18% of greenhouse gases come from raising livestock. The answer: Buy organic, grass fed and pasture raised when you can. Save money by buying the whole animal, use it to make multiple meals, and use the carcass to make a stock. Also considering eating a little less meat (Meatless Mondays anyone?). See my past blog post on understanding labels you will see on meat here!
- The issue: Over the last 200 years, the U.S. has transformed from a nation of growers to a nation of consumers. Farmers make up less than 2% of our population. There are actually more individuals in our prison system than farmers (2.3 million vs. 1.9 million). Additionally, 10 large food companies control 90% of our food supply and Monsanto and DuPont control 90% of commercially produced seeds. The answer: Support your local farmers by shopping at your farmer’s market or joining a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Check out Local Harvest for more information on farmer’s markets and CSAs in your area. Also grow your own food! Herbs, tomatoes, lettuce, and peppers are easy places to start and these can be grown in pots for those who don’t have yards.
- The issue: Studies show that children can recognize brands as young as ages 2 and 3. The food industry’s response? Children’s exposure to junk food ads increased 60% from 2008 to 2010. The answer: Try to limit the amount of time your child spends sitting in front of the TV watching programming that includes these ads. Talk to them about healthy food, take them to the farmer’s market with you, and let them participate in meal preparation in your household. Better yet, let them try to grow a food of their own that you can use in your meals. If you want to get political, talk to your representative about addressing the issue of junk food advertising to children like they have in Mexico.
- The issue: The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has stated that 1 in 3 children born after 2000 will have diabetes in their lifetime. It is the first generation that is expected to have a shorter lifespan than their parents. The answer: Eat more whole foods. It’s as simple as that. Hand your child an apple instead of processed candy when they want something sweet and try to incorporate one green vegetable into your dinner every day. These small steps will make a difference.
Now I don’t want to focus on the negative, but sometimes it is the only way to spur people into action. The only way to ignite the desire of a better life and a healthier future. It is easy to just go along with the status quo and not do anything, but we deserve better. It is possible for all of us, but we have to work together. Shift our priorities as a nation. Educating people about the reality of food in America today and how we can improve it is something I am very passionate about and I plan to devote time on many future blog posts that build on this one and provide real life ways we can work to improve our health, one individual and one family at a time. I hope the information I provide can help to get us moving in the right direction and maybe light a fire for you. And if you have any particular topics you are dying to learn more about, let me know by commenting below!
Issue #1 – School Food
My coaching program has been discussing school food a lot recently. Though it has been about 12 years since I was in a public school, I do remember the food that was served and I can only imagine that it has probably gotten worse since. What children are fed directly affects how they learn, their behavior, and their overall health. The same goes for children who can’t afford breakfast and go to school hungry. If the body does not have adequate levels of vitamins, minerals, nutrients, and water it won’t perform at its optimal level. Hungry children or those addicted to sugar and processed foods will be sluggish, not have adequate levels of energy to get them through the day, and will exhibit more erratic behavior, possibly leading to disciplinary issues. Studies have also shown that children who are not given adequate time for exercise and activity during the school day also have greater issues focusing on their studies.
In December 2013, NPR reported that the U.S. failed to crack the global top 20 rankings for students’ proficiency in math, reading, and science. In math we rank below average among the world’s developed countries, with 29 nations/locales outperforming the U.S. by a statistically significant margin. In science, 22 education systems rank above the U.S. In reading, its 19 nations/locales. (For those who are curious, top scores came from Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Macao, Japan, Lichtenstein, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Estonia.)
While there may be multiple reasons for these results, I think what our children are eating inside and outside of school is definitely part of the issue. What can we do about it? There are a number of school districts that have implemented farm to school programs and incorporated food and cooking education in their curriculum (see a great article discussing the top 10 here). There are also many groups that focus on this issue that are great resources if you want to get involved and learn more about what you can do. These include The Lunch Box, The Edible Schoolyard Project, and Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. Even just donating to these organizations can make a difference.
Peace, love and healthy children,