What is Healthy?

VALOR Class V recently had a wonderful trip to the Northern Neck.  Personally, I had never spent much time on the Northern Neck and found that it was a great place to visit with a wealth of agricultural history.  Highlights of the trip were our visit to the Northern Neck Technical Center, Kellum Seafoods, a trek to Tangier Island, dinner at the Northern Neck Farm Museum and a visit with Mr. Haynie to discuss his family’s history in farming. 

We also visited Health Harvest Food Bank, which serves the six counties on the Northern Neck, providing food to families in need.  They stock pantry essentials that they disperse to food pantries throughout the communities that they serve but they also have a strong working relationship with agricultural producers in their footprint to glean from their harvest in order to provide fresh produce to families in need.  Volunteers also work to provide education on nutrition, chronic health management and teach program participants how to make the best use of the foods that they receive.  Their Backpack Buddies Program serves 19 schools and provides children at risk for hunger with meals and snacks for the weekend throughout the school year.  Healthy Harvest also partners with Meals on Wheels and Senior programs to provide supplemental foods to the elderly as well as increase their access to fresh fruits and vegetables.  Healthy Food Pharmacy is a partnership with the Free Clinic and Cooperative Extension to improve the health of those with chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, that are at risk for disease complications if they do not have access to good nutritional resources.

A question that often comes up when visiting food banks is the theory of quantity over quality, is any caloric intake in the face of hunger better than no food at all?  Highly processed foods are typically seen in food banks because they are more cost effective, easier to obtain, more shelf stable and more easily transported.  However, they are not necessarily the healthiest option that you would prefer when considering nutritional guidelines.  When this question was asked while visiting Healthy Harvest, the answer given surprised me.  Rather than discussing how they use their access to fresh fruits and vegetables to supplement the shelf-stable processed foods, we got an explanation about the cost prohibitive factors of obtaining organic foods for the food pantry.

There seems to be a misconception that organic automatically equals healthy and traditionally grown agricultural products are not as healthy.  Organic farming is a production practice.  Organic farming must meet certain standards in the ways that pests are controlled using means that are determined to be accepted as natural rather than synthetic and organic standards do not allow the use of genetic modification or the use of supplements in animal production.  However, similar to traditional farming, organic farming does still employ the use of weed and insect control methods in order to increase production.   Plant compost and livestock manure are approved fertilizers, cover crops and mulch can be used to control weeds, natural pesticides such as copper or predatory insects control pests and a few synthetic pesticides can be used as a last resort.  In livestock production, animals are allowed to be given vaccinations and they can be given organic animal feed.

Organic is a production method, not a nutritional standard.

Many researchers have looked into whether or not organic foods are healthier than conventionally grown food, in particular a large study completed by Stanford University reviewed 250 papers and the reality is there is no significant difference between the two.  Conventionally grown products have the same nutritional value as their organically grown counterparts.  Despite the different production methods, both organic and conventionally grown products have detectable traces of pesticide treatments but both are within acceptable levels as set forth by the USDA.  In meat production, there were equal levels of bacteria that could cause food borne illness seen in both organically and conventionally produced pork and chicken.  A notable difference between organic and traditional foods though is cost, with organic products frequently being substantially higher to purchase.

Rather than focus dietary education on production methods, I feel that consumers should be taught the importance of healthy foods and how the nutrients are used in their bodies.  They should be encouraged to purchase the fresh produce and proteins that they can afford, whether this be at the local farmer’s market, grocery store or their food pantry with the assistance of community programs.  Education programs should include components of food safety, such as proper storage and preparation of foods in order to decrease the risk of contamination and food borne illness, which is a risk regardless of how the food is grown.  Finally, consumers should get education on how to prepare foods to preserve their maximum nutritional value and get the most out of the foods that they can afford.  Consumers should not be made to feel shame that they are providing less for their families if they cannot afford organic foods; rather, they should be praised when they try new foods and go out of their comfort zone to increase healthy habits in their families. 

All types of agriculture production provide healthy and nutritious food for families.

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