Gaining Health Sovereignty
What we put into our bodies matters - a lot. BY VIVIAN KANCHIAN
Each year, we lose 1,700,000 Americans to chronic diseases related to food, that’s 4,657 per day, or three times as many per year than Covid. And it doesn’t have to be this way.
So, why is it this way? Let’s start with a quick review of our current food system.
The plate on the left is what the USDA recommends we eat in a day to stay healthy, and on the right are the actual “foods” it subsidizes through the Farm Bill funded by our tax dollars. Anyone care for a side of soybean oil with their corn flakes? Notice that a giant slice of the pie (61%) is funneled to growing corn and other grains. This is why you can find corn and wheat in the most unlikely places - as a thickening agent in yogurt, in cosmetics, and even in toothpaste. If you’ve ever wondered why a shampoo would advertise that it’s gluten free on the bottle, now you know why. A significant amount of corn also winds up in soda - as highly refined corn syrup. In fact, because the USDA’s nutrition assistance program (SNAP) operates on the idea that all calories are equal, every year seven billion of our tax dollars are used to subsidize the same sugary drinks that land us in the hospital. In 2017 alone, diabetes cost the US $327b.
CREDIT: CONGRESSWOMAN CHELLIE PINGREE
Now, imagine if someone told you that for the same amount of money we spend each year putting band-aids on our diabetes problem, we can give our broken agriculture and healthcare systems a major overhaul that would regenerate both our health and the health of our environment. In 2019, that’s exactly what UN climate scientists estimated it would cost to set us on a path towards saving our planet. No, really! By incentivizing regenerative farming practices, we can cool temperatures enough to curb climate change as we move away from fossil fuels, and towards renewable energy sources. This means that for a measly $300b, humanity wouldn’t have to run out of food in under sixty years as the UN has projected we will. Through the restoration of 900 hectares of degraded land across the globe, we could effectively transform these lands into a carbon sink. Which basically means that all of that extra carbon in our atmosphere that’s making the planet heat up so fast can be tucked away into soil. The primary strategies proposed by scientists to revive these desertified lands include reverting some of it to pasture, planting more trees, and helping farmers transition to more regenerative practices that support natural ecosystems. By incorporating integrated methods that include crop rotations, reduced tillage and natural fertilizers, the planting of polyculture crops and trees, and livestock-rearing, these lands can begin to thrive again. Healthy soil loves carbon, and uses it to retain water, and to grow living food above ground as well as support incredibly diverse ecosystems below ground.
Some people like to say that we need innovation to solve our food and water problems, and that we cannot feed the world without the use of chemical fertilizers and GMO crops. Many of these people also have the most to gain from agrochemical (AKA drug) companies - a $65B business as of this year. On the other hand, Rodale’s 30-year Farming Systems Trial offers up solid evidence that what we really need is a return to the basic principles of farming that have worked to sustain humanity for millennia. Through a combination of approaches that include crop rotation, cover cropping, integrated pest management, and reduced tillage, Rodale’s study has shown that regenerative farming:
- produces local food systems that are naturally resilient to wind, drought, and flooding
- is far less energy intensive; helping to keep our air, soil and water clean and helping put agrochemical companies out of business
- produces healthier soil, and more nutrient-dense foods without chemical residues
- after an initial transition period, is THREE TIMES more profitable than conventional systems AND matches conventional yields
And if you’d like more evidence, take a look at WC Lowdermilk’s Conquest of the Land Through Seven Thousand Years commissioned by the USDA in the late 1930’s. It shows that the American farm is “capable of feeding at least 350 million people when the land is intensively cultivated under full conservation and fully occupied with a complex division of labor”.
For a long time now, the world has OVER produced food at a rate of about 2,700 calories per person. At the same time, about forty percent of the food produced in the US winds up in landfills, one in eight American households are food insecure, sixty percent of Americans’ diets consist of processed foods, and a record number of us are dying from diseases directly related to both overconsumption and malnutrition. When we look at these numbers, it becomes clear that the issue isn’t with quantity, but the quality and distribution of food. Did you know that the food on your plate travels an average of 1,500 miles from the farm to your fork? If you were given an opportunity to eat more locally, do you think you’d take it?
As our generation becomes more involved with how our tax dollars are being spent, we’re realizing that we may want to demand more from our elected officials. By calling on our government to support and incentivize farmers who are doing the right thing, we also empower ourselves. Public policy is going to be a very important piece of this puzzle, but it isn’t all of the puzzle.
We don’t have to look very far back to remember what real farm-to-table looked like.
Just 75 years ago, close to half of America’s produce was grown in backyard gardens, and cooked at home. We HAD food sovereignty. And while the FDA website tells us there were no nationwide food shortages last year, many of us became acutely aware of local shortages when we visited our grocery stores during the height of COVID-19 only to find rows of empty shelves. America’s largest network of food banks, Feeding America, saw a sixty percent average increase in demand during the pandemic. In Colorado, one in eight children, and one in ten people are currently struggling with hunger.
Food sovereignty is defined as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations”. Last year’s events revealed to us just how unstable and unreliable our food systems have become, providing us with an opportunity to reconnect with our food again. As governments grapple with carving the best path towards recovery moving further into 2021, each of us are invited to engage in recovery - regenerative recovery. respond to our When we grow and cook our own food, we’re so much less likely to be wasteful because we understand the energy (time, toil, water, and money) that has gone into producing that food. Also, there isn’t a single restaurant willing to take the same level of interest in our health as we do when we cook for ourselves and our loved ones. In fact, studies show that people who cook at home are not as likely to overeat, or to consume empty calories from sugar and unhealthy fats.
*This* is what true health sovereignty looks like! It starts with the basic understanding that we get out of our bodies what we put in. And that we get out of our air, water, and soil what we put in. We’ve been conditioned to think twice about putting cheap gas in our cars, but are quick to scarf down that order of fries in our cars on our way to the next meeting. What are some ways we can reprogram the deep-seated beliefs that make us behave this way?
Rooted in the self-inquiry… “is it kind, true, or necessary”... here are 7 actionable items anyone can take to move towards greater health sovereignty today:
- Try eating mostly veggies. If you’re a meat eater, choose quality > quantity; think little meat croutons. And if you’re not a veggie person, I promise you that a tomato grown without chemicals, allowed to ripen on the vine, and birthed by your own two hands tastes *so* much sweeter!
- Plan your meals ahead of time, and cook more.
- Instead of scouring Yelp for restaurant reviews, get to know your local regen farmer/ farmers market
- Grow as much of your own food as you can.
- Not much space? Tomatoes, peppers, herbs, wild berries, and some other veggies can easily be grown inside small living spaces. Sprouts are also a low-cost, super-easy, nutrient-dense food you can grow indoors.
- Don’t feel like growing in a small space? How about renting a little plot of land in a community garden instead.
- Don’t feel like that either? How about shopping at your local farmers market or having your food delivered by a company that prevents food waste.
- Got a backyard? Use it to grow veggies and fruit! If you’re feeling ambitious, consider adding a couple of chickens into the mix. They’ll eat all your table scraps so they don’t wind up in a landfill, and they’ll give you eggs in return.
- Don’t leave the water running. Water is now considered more valuable than gold. And as pretty and shiny as it may be, we can’t eat or drink gold. Indigenous people have always known that water is life. Let’s use it wisely:
Fun fact: inhaling and eating soil-based organisms in small doses will strengthen your immune system!
8. If you hand-wash dishes: Soap first, stack second, rinse third.
9. Everyone uses the toilet, and ahem, some things just cannot wait to be flushed. But others can. So, if it’s yellow let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down!
10. Shorter or less frequent showers not only save precious water, they’re also good for our immune system!
11. Consider investing in a bidet attachment for your toilet. They cost less than $100, and save tons of water compared to TP.
12. Make your voice heard. Join others to demand that the USDA use your tax dollars to grow what they tell you to eat.
13. Vote with your wallet. Studies show that consumer demand for organic foods is increasing at a rate of 10% each year, and in spite of what you may have been led to believe… consumer demand *does* drive change. Buy organic, local, and regenerative products and watch as these foods become increasingly available.
Vivian Kanchian has degrees in Community Health (MPH) from UCLA, and Nutrition (with additional certification in herbs and supplements).
Her connection to nature and knowledge of food as medicine began from an early age at home, and continues through her professional experiences:
- as apprentice to Dr. Michelle Gerber, ND - where she deepened her knowledge of herbal medicine for women’s health
- Regional Correspondent for health startup EndPain - where she created original wellness content
- Strategic Partnerships Lead at Project Angel Food - where she launched and grew a Food Is Medicine pilot program for Los Angeles’ underserved Medicaid population
These experiences, combined with her growing interest in health sovereignty, led her to establish Nutrition with a Mission in 2020 to help make it easier for people and companies to choose the healthiest *and* most sustainable foods for their unique needs.
If there’s one thing she’s learned over time, it’s that while our nutritional needs may be different, we are connected to EVERYthing and EVERYbody. And one of the most powerful ways we can heal ourselves and the planet that sustains us, is by choosing mindfully the foods we put on our plates.
Connect with Vivian at: viviankanchian.com