Something happened to Charlie Reid in 1968. That year he and some friends ventured from Hampton Beach, New Hampshire across the country to California to see Hollywood. Instead of rubbing elbows with the stars, however, Charlie Reid learned about organic gardening from a neighbor on his block.
“There was no such thing as the word ‘organic’ to describe what she was doing,” Reid said. “It was just growing food with no chemicals.”
In 1968, Reid learned that craft and he helped that woman with her garden everyday. One of those days he headed to her house to find black limousines parked out front and the woman arguing with some men in suits. When they left she told him that those men were the American Cancer Society.
“She showed me her x-rays,” Reid said. “She had cured herself of cancer—she had cancer all through her—and they wanted to know how she did it.” Reid said she attributed her healing to her garden and a fresh supply of chemical-free fruits and vegetables.
Reid was talking as a recent panelist at FARMpreneurs, a panel discussion organized by UNH professor John Carroll in Durham last week. The purpose of the event was to demonstrate, in Carroll’s words, that “local food and farming is economic development, at both the production and the consumption level.” While based upon the potential of local farming for economic development, one of the themes that surfaced at the event was the positive impact of “real” local food for personal and community health and wellbeing.
Reid continued his story by telling the audience that the woman who had cured herself of cancer blamed the food supply for her illness. “She pointed down the valley at Glendale California and said, ‘There’s your problem right there. There’s where all your cancer is coming from. All the processed foods, they’re all full of chemicals. “
Cancer isn’t the only one of America’s health concerns. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website (www.cdc.gov/nchs) states that in 2007-2008, 34 percent of adults over the age of 20 were overweight and an additional 34 percent were obese. The American Heart Association’s website states that cardiovascular disease was responsible for 34 percent of all deaths in the United States in 2006, or about one out of every three. Coronary heart disease was the single leading cause of death in that year.
Carroll, professor in the natural resources department and author of many books including Pastures of Plenty: The Future of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Conservation in New England and The Real Dirt: Toward Food Sufficiency and Farm Sustainability in New England said that what America eats is largely to blame. Consumption of processed foods has only increased since the middle of last century with the emergence of our industrial food system.
Regarding processed food Carroll said, “It’s not food. It’s highly processed, manufactured product that we eat, but it’s not food.” He cites the lack of nutrition in these foods as one force beyond America’s poor health.
Kate Kennington, a certified holistic health coach in Berwick, Maine, who works with her clients on finding diets that are best for their individual bodies, said that nutrition is often lacking in processed food. She gives the example of processed white bread in which the brown hull of the wheat grain, where the majority of the nutrients occur, is stripped away. Manufactured nutrients must be added in during processing in order to compensate for the refining of the grain.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 90 percent of American food is processed, which means the food has been mixed with other ingredients—often preservatives—before being sold to the public.
“If your food comes in a box or a package,” said Kennington, “It has been processed.”
Even the World Health Organizations (WHO) has cited processed foods as largely to blame for the sharp rise rates of obesity and chronic disease. In a report they released in 2003 they encouraged people to eat less of these foods and more fruits and vegetables.
Because these recommended foods are found in abundance at local farmers markets, eating locally might become a solution to America’s health problems.
In 2008, a group of MIT researchers released results of a study in which they concluded that America’s obesity problem was largely due to the national-scale of our food supply production and distribution system. In other words, our industrial food system causes obesity.
A year later, in October of 2009, the same researchers proposed a solution to this problem by suggesting a substantial increase in regional food consumption. They recommended that Americans living in metropolitan areas should get most of their nutrition from the regional ‘foodshed’ that surrounds their cities. This solution may take into account that most locally grown food is unprocessed, or in ‘whole’ form, as both Kennington and Carroll point out.
In a 2009 article in MIT news the man who organized the study, Dr. Tenley Albright, said, “To end obesity, we need to produce healthier, more accessible, more affordable food.”
Along with Charlie Reid, Joseph Marquette of Yellowhouse Farm was also a panalist at FARMpreneurs. Marquette raises heritage poultry in Barrington, New Hampshire, for sale at local markets. Heritage poultry refers to, in Marquette’s words, “real chickens” versus their factory-farmed, hybridized equivalents sold at grocery stores and served in most restaurants.
Marquette raised the point that the requirements of a large and diverse breeding pool coupled with the land required to raise heritage poultry begets much higher costs than are associated with factory-farmed poultry. This is one of the challenges of small-scale, local agriculture operations: prices are often higher. But that hasn’t yet been a problem for Marquette.
“Many people have woken up to the idea that quality food comes with expense,” said Marquette. “It’s not so much that we are discovering this, it’s that we are remembering it. Food was always costly, but it was also always food.”
While the general affluence of the seacoast area may protect Marquette from a lack of customers, the U.S. Census Bureau still estimates that between three and 10 percent of seacoast-area residents live in poverty. The higher price of local food, due in part to a lack of federal subsidies that the industrial sector is afforded, can prevent people of lower income brackets from making healthy food decisions that include locally grown food.
The difference in price between whole foods and process foods is astounding. In 2004, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition released a study that showed that although one-dollar could buy 1,200 calories of potato chips and 875 calories of soda, it would only stretch to cover 170 calories of fresh-fruits and 250 calories of fresh-vegetables.
Sara Zoe Patterson, the coordinator of Seacoast Eat Local—an organization that connects consumers with sources of locally grown and locally made food—is already on top of that issue. Also a panelist at the FARMpreneur event she mentioned that Seacoast Eat Local was working on bringing SNAP food stamp access to farmers markets in the seacoast area.
According to the USDA, the number of New Hampshire residents that participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP increased by over 14.5% between 2009 and 2010. Bringing food stamp access to seacoast farmers markets could allow lower-income residents greater access to fresh and healthy local food. The processing of making farmers markets SNAP accessible could also have positive benefits for sales.
“The brilliance is that with the machinery required to run the snap program…comes the ability to accept debit cards as well,” Patterson said. This initiative is just one aspect of what Seacoast Eat Local is doing to provide seacoast-area residents with fresh, local food while supporting local farms.
To explain the reasoning behind Seacoast Eat Local’s general goals Patterson said, “We think that farms are businesses that deserve a special place in our culture; they are growing our food, and I feel like there’s nothing more personable, more intimate, than being able to know the person that’s growing the very thing that is keeping you alive, and contributing to your health, and making you happy.”